The latest in a new cycle of horror film where the money shots depict beautiful young people getting terrorized, paralyzed, maimed, disfigured, dismembered or simply humiliated is Turistas, which explores cloddishness and xenophobia among the beautiful people traveling abroad. Director John Stockwell made the spunky surfer-girl movie Blue Crush, which boasted some interesting cinematography in and around the water, and a surprisingly large portion of Turistas is dedicated to simply watching a small group of Americans and Australians cavorting, half-naked, on the beach and in the water in Brazil. It turns out that their pale good looks are as good as a target painted on their collective backside — when they strike out on their own, heading away from their tour group, they’re stalked by [SPOILER!] a group of medical opportunists who aim to take them hostage, harvest their internal organs, and redistribute them to needy Brazilians. Vivisection ensues.

Horror geeks have been complaining for a while that this looked like an unofficial remake of Hostel, which also dealt with American tourists getting exploited in unspeakably grisly fashion by their counterparts in more economically strapped territories (in that film, which was perhaps closer in conception to The Most Dangerous Game, the setting was Eastern Europe). One difference is that, though they were somewhat likable, the Americans in Hostel were more indisputably ugly — pussy hounds being led into danger by the irresistible tug of their own cocks. There are hints that the troupe of tourists here includes similar serial womanizers — there’s a sidelong reference to some nearly forgotten “Dutch girls” — but Stockwell and Michael Ross (a film editor turned screenwriter) take pains to make the group as a whole seem not totally loutish. For one thing, the Americans meet Pru (Melissa George) an Australian who actually speaks Portuguese, which turns out to be a great help. (The rest of the crew could not, apparently, be bothered to pick up a phrasebook.) She befriends a charming local named Kiko — in retrospect that turns out to have been a very bad idea, but it’s still an indicator of good intentions.

The group’s leader, Alex (Josh Duhamel), is a different story. He’s suspicious of everything and everyone in the country and he’s only on the trip because he didn’t want his kid sister, Bea (Olivia Wilde), to go it alone. Like Cate Blanchett’s bitchy American tourist in Babel, he won’t order ice in his drinks because he expects to contract dysentery. (I can imagine an alternate version of Babel where a more ironically tuned variation on Turistas is the fifth interlocked storyline.) He gets belligerent with a tour-bus driver — and ends up vindicated when the bus ends up tumbling over a cliff. Alex is [SPOILER!!] one of the few characters who lives to see the end credits, which suggests an endorsement of his trust-nobody worldview. If Stockwell and Ross were trying to scare American kids into cultural isolationism, this would be a pretty good piece of propaganda for the cause.

Turistas does build up a pretty good head of exploitation-movie steam over its running time, managing to dole out generous helpings of cheesecake/beefcake while ever-so-slowly increasing the tension. There’s even a sex scene with an unexpected financial transaction at the back end that foreshadows the rather less polite extractions that come later. But other intriguing elements never really cohere. There’s an interesting scene that takes place in a tiny village the turistas wander into after they’ve been drugged, mugged, and left unconscious in the surf. The people here are obviously very poor, and the turistas are angry enough that one of them chucks a rock at a little kid, which is no way to say “Olá” to the locals. But there’s no indication this kind of behavior is in any way tied to their ultimate fate. They’re just gringos in a group too small to properly defend itself from the bad people.

In the third act, the survivors make a break for it and run into the jungle, where it’s dark, there’s lots of screaming, and it’s hard to tell what’s going on. At this point, the action turns into any-damned-chase-scene from any-damned-B-movie-at-all, and I pretty much lost all interest. Taken as a whole, Turistas is not an uninteresting piece of work, since the subtext about underclass resentment of those giggling, nubile gringos traipsing across the county in search of sex, sand and cheap beer is potent. With more serious script development and a sensibility tweak to humanize the Brazilians — less Cannibal Holocaust, more City of God — it could have been a horror film for the ages. As it stands, it feels like Turistas simply exploits Americans’ fear of foreigners, and that makes me a little queasy.

Director: John Stockwell

Writer: Michael Ross

Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak

Editor: Jeff McEvoy

Music: Paul Haslinger

Safe Travel in South America


Trailers [apple.com]


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