My first question regarding John Stockwell's grisly torture-fiesta concerns the timing of its release. I would love to have listened in on the brainstorming session among Fox executives that resulted in the selection of the holiday season. I'll bet the reasoning went something like this: Hey, there's a decent chance we'll have the only wide release between Thanksgiving and Christmas featuring south-of-the-border psychos pulling intestines out of a living girl who's topless. Actually, I wouldn't be so sure.
Because my second question is, what's with the sudden popularity of movie torture? Is there possibly some hidden sociological link between the current administration's advocacy of physical coercion in the name of national security and the proliferation of films such as Hostel and the lucrative Saw series? Fun fact: The BBC reports there's more torture in Iraq today than there was under Saddam Hussein. In the Baghdad mortuary, more bodies now show signs of torture than of a clean death.
A horror fan all my life, I somehow hadn't gotten around to looking into this bloody new breed of fright-fest. But on this first weekend in December, when the choices were limited to a Paris Hilton campus comedy, a Van Wilder sequel and The Nativity Story, I realized the time had come. Hacked-off hands and nubile young Americans in dog cages may not scream Yuletide fun, but they beat that competition silly.
Stockwell is perhaps best known for Blue Crush, the sunny 2002 surfer-girl feature that introduced the world to Kate Bosworth, and the previous year's uplifting Latino boy/WASP girl high school romance crazy/beautiful. You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a guy like this before he makes the decision to give the torture-and-mutilation genre a try.
As departures go, Turistas is a doozy. Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde play a brother and sister who head to Brazil for a tropical getaway. As the movie opens, they've joined a gaggle of young thrill-seekers from around the world and are enjoying the thrill offered by a white-knuckle cliff-side ride on a speeding bus driven by a local of dubious hygiene and competence. Before it makes an unscheduled stop upside down at the base of a mountain, everybody on board manages to leap to safety. Or to leap out of the vehicle, anyway.
Waiting for the next bus, the group bakes in the sun by the side of the road until the young folks find out there's a seaside bar a short ways off. After a brief discussion, they decide to hike away from the relative safety of the roadside and the promise of a ride. It's the first of many decisions they will come to regret.
Initially, the place is as beckoning as a desert mirage. The sand is white. The waitresses are friendly and good-looking. The booze is unbelievably cheap. Duhamel and Wilde befriend a hippie couple from Sweden who inform them, "We came here three years ago and just never thought of a reason to leave." In retrospect, their idyllic extended stay seems something of an inconsistency in Michael Ross' script. Because, after a single night of partying, all the gringos awaken to the realization that they've been drugged, robbed and abandoned. As bleak as their situation is, it will deteriorate.
Large, menacing men have already tied our two Swedish friends to wooden poles and carried them into the jungle. These men also want to get their hands on the rest of the outsiders as well, and they have someone on the inside to help with that. A super-friendly Brazilian chap who cozied up to the revelers the night before reappears, offering to lead them to a secluded house where they'll be safe. These Americans - who clearly have never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any other horror film - are so thoroughly learning-impaired that they eagerly follow him miles into the forest.
The owner of the home is not the fellow's cousin, as advertised, but rather a hot-tempered medical professional by the name of Zamora (Miguel Lunardi). He has an issue with the fact that rich folks from developed countries who need organ transplants often resort to buying them on the black market from poor Brazilians. Rather than take this up with his local legislators, he has fashioned a jungle lair in which he can harvest organs from unsuspecting travelers and send them to hospitals in Rio and Saõ Paulo.
This makes him an unusually issue-oriented movie villain, and it's one of the film's many problems. He's not scary - his politics are. He also manages to perform only one procedure before all his guests escape into the night. He carries it out with the help of rubber gloves (thoughtful of him) and anesthesia. (Is it technically even torture if the victim is out cold?) Apart from this one sequence, Turistas has almost no horror content. Mostly, it's just a very long slog through the jungle to the lair, and then a lot of running and frenzied swimming to get away from it.
By making the stay at Zamora's tourist trap so brief, Stockwell blows his one chance to build a little tension. The script supplies precious little reason for the viewer to take an interest in this dime-a-dozen assemblage of beefcake and bikinis. One roots for their survival, of course, but it's hardly surprising - nor permanently scarring - when, for example, one of the gang evades a henchman by accidentally running off a cliff. When a writer dispenses with character development, it's easier for the audience to dispense with his characters, I suppose.
The bottom line? Not a lot of horror. Not a lot of thrills or chills. When you get right down to it, in fact, not a whole lot of reason for taking the trouble to make the trip.