Turistas (Unrated Version)

I learned a few important survival tips while watching this late entry in the bind-torture-kill genre. One, don’t underestimate the intense hatred the third world may have against “gringos”. Two, there’s no need to go to the farthest ends of the earth in order to get away from it all. The Jersey shore has sand, surf and ladies, too. Three, when some weird, drugged up chick tells you to run for your life, do not just stand there asking in-depth questions like Mike Wallace. Put on your Nikes and make like Jesse Owens in the 100 yard dash. Finally, find out how much your kidneys go for on the local Black Market and then go somewhere else where it is less profitable to steal than, say, a carton of cigarettes. Turistas is a movie that starts out great, rides along a pretty creepy wave and then just wipes out at the end. With a plot Frankensteined from the remains of Hostel, The Descent and Wolf Creek, Turistas was clearly never going to be on anyone’s 10 best list. However, it does something that its predecessors do not. It avoids the satirical distance that presents characters as nothing but dumb cannon fodder to be laughed at and killed. This is clearly the hip young filmmaker’s method to demonstrate his love of the cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick often created scenarios which avoided any real emotional connection to the characters so that he could focus the audience’s attention on a greater theme. The bind-torture-kill subgenre has no theme to speak of, unless it’s, “you’ve got to be a real idiot to end up tortured and killed this way.” So all we’re left with is the idiot cannon fodder in the place of characters.Turistas is a film that actually benefits from an old fashioned sense of simple storytelling and character. It may lack the hipness of all of its forebears but, you know, sometimes it’s just hip to be square.

Riding along a death defying road on a bouncy tourist bus are our main characters. Alex (Josh Duhamel) is playing chaperone to his younger sister, Bea (Olivia Wilde) and her “bad influence” best friend, Amy (Beau Garrett). Pru (Melissa George), is some kind of professional traveler a long way from her native Australia while Finn (Desmond Askew) and Liam (Max Brown) are visiting from the U.K., looking for the sand, liquor and women the ads promised. They are all brought together in a rural area of Brazil when they just barely survive an accident that sends their bus tumbling into a ravine. Now, instead of waiting for the next bus, these six decide to investigate rumors of an secret private beach and bar (Bad Move). Predictably, this supposed paradise turns into a rocky hell when they are drugged and robbed. They wake up half naked and very threatened by the locals. With the help of a very dubious “friend” from the village they met the day before (at the party where they were ROBBED, mind you) the group treks through miles and miles of dense wilderness to arrive at a safe house.

What they don't know is they're being led into a trap run by a mad doctor who makes his living selling precious human organs to those both sick and rich enough to afford it. There’s a little politics here regarding the revenge of the third world against the arrogance and greed of white America but don’t worry, it’s just a passing thought, not some pretentious need to “elevate” a lurid thriller. This thriller stays lurid, thankfully.

The set-up and tension all the way to the death house is very well done and told in a clean, crisp style by the auteur of the Bikini, Beach and Water film, John Stockwell. Actually, Stockwell only made two other films with those elements, but since Blue Crush did well at the box office and Into the Blue became a fetish for the one handed fans of Jessica Alba, I’m sure that qualifies him in Hollywood as a “Master” of thongs and tans. Secretly, he’s really pretty good at getting decent performances from young actors and making the most out of whatever scraps of characterization exist in his scripts. This skill serves him well here especially during the film’s solitary “torture” scene which is wonderfully underplayed and eerily calm. It features female nudity but in a way that subverts the voyeuristic gaze since the object is drugged up and having her organs removed at the time. Not very erotic, unless you’re into that kind of thing. If so, I hope to never meet you in a dark alley.

Once we have experienced the horror of horrors in the story, Stockwell’s filmmaking completely self-destructs. He fails to pull off the climax since (contrary to popular belief) action scenes are actually hard to film effectively and even harder when half of it is underwater in a dark cave. Though even these scenes almost work due to the very real fear most people have of drowning. It’s just that with a flurry of fast edits, dark figures and underwater shots, it becomes a totally abstract experience and a futile battle for the pause and rewind function of your DVD player to figure out what the hell is going on and just who is chasing who to the surface.

The first half of the film works because of the decidedly unhip straightforward, functional style of filmmaking Stockwell employs. He does not condescend to his characters, and does not call attention to his framing or editing. The film merely presents it’s characters and situations sincerely and when the strange events begin to accumulate, the tension is all the more effective since we’ve taken everything at face value. It’s when the horror elements kick in that Stockwell seems to be at a loss. He should’ve just stuck to his simple, straightforward style but in trying to keep up with the kids these days, he ends up shooting everything in a thousand random pieces, in near darkness with no sense of space. The key to directing action and suspense is to give the audience a clear understanding of the space and the relative positioning of hunter and prey. Without this clarity, it all just falls apart on screen.

Still, the real problem is that the director and cast are smarter than the script which has no idea what to do once the characters are locked up and laid out on slabs. The film seems to go on forever after this without actually hitting any new plot points or allowing any character to develop past the Cro Magnun survival stage.

One of these primitives is Josh Duhamel, an actor who may just be the most likeably bland leading man since John Gavin. His character is interesting at the beginning since he’s supposed to be “responsible” for his kid sister and is depicted as a worrier and total square who even orders a soda at the bar and insists on no ice to protect his bowels from the local water. He turns into a survival robot soon later but until then gives a pretty engaging performance.

Melissa George from Alias gets to play the Australian she really is for once and begins as a very smart heroine, who has traveled all around the world and can speak several languages and then is reduced to a completely speechless idiot as the plot requires. She looks good in a bikini though and that may have been her only requirement. George needs to work with David Lynch again since her most interesting performance is still as “Camilla Rhodes” in Mulholland Drive. Without a single line of dialogue, she was riveting in those signature Lynch close-ups that made her look both demonic and innocent at the same time.

Not to damn with faint praise but Turistas may actually be the best film of this completely unimaginative subgenre. The genre as a whole may have been saved by these films from the damage left by Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven but it can’t stay in this phase much longer. Parody is just around the corner. There are simply not many twists one can create in a story where people are tied up and cut apart graphically. It’s not really scary so much as it’s unpleasant and it’s never going to be very funny. Turistas manages to place it more specifically in the thriller genre by being more suggestive with it’s gore and violence. It’s not a headache inducing mess like the Saw saga or a misogynist’s nightmare like Hostel. It’s just a simple story about some semi-intelligent travelers who end up in very bad trouble.

If only screenwriter Michael Ross could’ve came up with an actual third act that forced his smart characters to think in order to survive and turn the tables on their captors. In the end, the most important thing I may have learned from this film is to never, ever take the bus in Brazil. Since this is the "Unrated Version" I would assume I got a few more minutes of mild T&A as well as a slightly more graphic mix of sex and gore in the surgery sequence. Not having seen the theatrical version, I cannot really compare except to say that the “Unrated” version is 4 minutes longer than the theatrical cut and I saw nothing in the movie that should be rated any more than an “R”. There was very little nudity and only brief moments of gore. If the theatrical version was 4 minutes tamer, it must’ve been pretty much a PG-13 besides the dark subject matter.

The transfer was as good as it’s going to be on a home television. You’ve got some nice postcard shots of Brazilian beaches that are sunny and inviting and then the last 30 minutes which take place in some limbo of inky blackness with flashes of light here and there. Much of it is nearly black and in soft focus especially once the chase goes underwater. Once that happens it’s just as well to speed through to the end to see who made it out alive.

There are the requisite “deleted scenes” which, as usual, show you that most scenes are deleted because they are, in fact, terrible or, at best, totally unnecessary. A “Special Effects Featurette” is a very brief look at the effects used in the film, particularly an amazing full body mannequin of actress Beau Garrett which is so convincing the filmmakers could shoot it straight on without cuts at times.

A teaser trailer for “Hostel 2” and a commentary by director John Stockwell round out the extras. Stockwell is a very likable guy who you might remember was once an actor himself in films like John Carpenter’s Christine and Top Gun. His commentary is very honest and discusses the advantages and difficulties of shooting on location in Brazil as well as the importance of producing convincing looking violence onscreen. I was actually surprised that there was a commentary on this disc since these films are normally tossed off as run of the mill entertainments needless of discussion. Stockwell actually had some interesting things to say as opposed to a bag of hot air like Uwe Boll whose incredible commentaries make us dumber than we were before we listened to it.