The so-called Third World wreaks vengeance on a bevy of beautiful Caucasians in Turistas. To be sure, the titular characters appear deserving of their bad fates, and yet, the film suggests, they are so unthinkingly presumptive and privileged that the extreme nature of their punishment indicts the punishers — that is, the dark-skinned, multiply-tattooed, and thick-accented (but helpfully English-speaking) villains.
The movie’s jokey-but-not-so-funny warning against traipsing into unfamiliar territory is explicit enough in its tagline: “Go Home.” Yes, Americans and other Westerners should stop meddling in local cultures, forgive debts, prevent HIV, and draw down their troops everywhere. And yet John Stockwell’s entry into the burgeoning torture-as-horror mini-genre offers still more persuasion.
First, the American, British, and Australian tourists ride a bus that takes a plunge off a mountain road in Brazil. As they escape with only some scattered luggage, they decide to entertain themselves while awaiting replacement transportation, by drinking the night away with youthful, energetic locals who appear eager to party, have sex, and — cue insidious music — learn English. The tourists are resiliently silly and smug. Not-so-reckless-as-the-rest Alex (Josh Duhamel), his painfully naïve sister Bea (Olivia Wilde), and his potential romantic interest Pru (Melissa George), are established as the three most capable of conversation (Pru even speaks Portuguese). They are accompanied by those whose fates are sealed by their bad behavior: British lads Finn (Desmond Askew) and Liam (Max Brown) are too keen to have sex with anything that movies, and Amy (Beau Garrett) is doomed as soon as she utters the line that resonates in the film’s trailers: “Would you guys mind if I went topless?”
Agreeing to a wild night, these crazy kids run headlong into a wholly predictable plot (including dancing and hazy, handheld-camera point of view shots, and a surprise for Finn when he learns the lovely Gaughinian “Native Girl” actually wants money in exchange for the sex she’s granted him). Next AM, they’re groggy and passed out on the now empty beach, wondering what the heck happened until Alex fills in: they’ve been robbed of passports, money, knapsacks, and plastic. Oh dear. Apparently incapable or calling home or American Express for help, they are now utterly dependent on the very locals who scammed them.
While some of these folks are flat-out resentful of the tourists (one kid shows up wearing Alex’s favorite baseball cap, inciting a chase scene through village alleyways and a spate of oh-so-childish rock-throwing), one seems excessively helpful. Even after their abuse the night before, the tourists insist on behaving stupidly, and accept the out-of-the-blue offer from Kiko (Agles Steib), who does seem vaguely sincere. He knows of a safe place for the beleaguered Others (who can’t help but think of themselves as Same). Tired and scraggly in their only remaining outfits (that is, bikinis for the girls and t-shirts and jeans for the boys), the travelers take the bait.
The tourists traipse some 10 hours through the jungle (about which they complain mightily), pausing to take in the beauteousness of a waterfall and underwater caves (thus granting Stockwell a chance to revisit his favorite images, also available in Blue Crush and Into the Blue, namely, nubile girls viewed from below as they slice through blue waters). At last they arrive at the “safe place” that is really the Terrible Place that horror film victims should never enter but always do. It’s a swank mountaintop home outfitted with incredible surveillance technology and supplies that include a bottle of “20-year-old single malt” and machetes.
These last will be employed by thugs who are in turn employed by one Dr. Zamora (Miguel Lunardi), who intends to harvest the tourists’ organs. It’s helpful and silly that he explains his thinking on this project while digging into a pretty girl’s torso for her liver and kidneys (essentially, he’s angry at American imperialism and arrogance, the amounts of money that rich people can pay for poor people’s organs, and wants to see some Yankee’s heart beating in the chest of an ailing Brazilian child). His villainy is underscored repeatedly: he puts a kebob stick through a worker’s eye even as he tries to explain his failure, and later murders less verbal minions when they misbehave, and keeps passports of past victims for no fathomable reason except to grant the newest ones the chance to discover them and be suddenly afraid.
While it’s short on clever scares and long on bloody excess (machetes and scalpels being implements of choice), the movie also lurches between images that are breathtakingly beautiful (kind of Blue Lagoon) and literally hard to see, as when a tattooed thug chases victims through the now not so enchanting underground caverns, swimming for long minutes, then bursting to the surface to gasp for air in tight spaces (think: The Descent underwater, or The Cave without the winged monsters). Where’s Shelley Winters when you need her?
If this portion of the adventure lacks originality, Turistas does demonstrate explicitly what you already know because you’ve seen Hostel: tourists, especially American tourists, are the new girls in horror movies. Reputed worldwide to be oblivious and crude, they do make easy targets (who would defend them?). Add on the series of bad showings by the Tourist in Chief and the resentment engendered by the U.S. and coalition military forces, and the tourists here — again, U.S., British, and Australian — look like easy targets, alternately boorish and fearful of anything “new.”
And still, Turistas can’t stop there, turning its ideological pretense back around on itself. The fact that Dr. Zamora’s own viciously verbalized racism leads directly to his downfall doesn’t exactly make up for the film’s demonizing of dark-skinned characters throughout.