By Michelle Orange
[Photo: “Turistas,” Fox Atomic, 2006]
In a recent piece about the “torture porn” trend in horror films, New York magazine critic David Edelstein had a great line about the ever-escalating attempts to shock an audience, writing that “in the quest to have a visceral impact, actual viscera are the final frontier.” One would hope, one would hope; but now that “Shortbus” has worked explicit sex into a pseudo-romantic comedy, the third installment of the “Saw” franchise ($350 million and counting) has been banned to minors in France, of all places, for its beyond-the-pale depictions of torture and dismemberment, “Hostel 2” is on the way, and “Jackass Number 2” has done its business, could the mainstreaming of snuff films be next? After all, if the actual viscera actually belongs to a chicken or a mountain goat, isn’t there still one frontier to go?
Let’s postpone that gruesome question for a moment and consider the endeavor of “Fox Atomic,” 20th Century Fox’s new teen-oriented film studio. Lionsgate’s marketing chief Tim Palen has been quoted as calling the current torture genre craze “a gold mine” and Fox Atomic was created with the expressed intention of cashing in; their first release, “Turistas,” opens this week, their second release, the Wes Craven-penned “The Hills Have Eyes 2” in March and “28 Days Later” sequel “28 Weeks Later” in May. Peter Rice, the head of the division, has made his mandate clear: low-budget teen comedies and torture flicks that rely almost exclusively on online and “viral” marketing to create a brand around not just the films but the studio itself. You know a trend has reached saturation point when a whole studio is devised in its service.
“Turistas,” a fairly standard teen slasher flick that splices in (forgive me) the now de rigeur scenes of slow and steady unanesthetized surgery, also caters to the new xenophobia (with “Hostel” as its advent and apotheosis) wherein the risks of travel include not just losing your luggage but one or two of your major organs. “Go Home” is the tag line on “Turistas”‘s movie poster, and it works as either an ominous threat from Ugly American-loathing foreigners or a word of advice from Americans i.e. the filmmakers who know better. The “hero unveils a drawer full of passports” scene is a loaded and usually chilling trope in any number of genres the spy movie, sci-fi thriller, historical drama, um, “Fletch” and when it makes an appearance in “Turistas,” the effect is familiar but offers a new and naive twist of dread: if only they’d just stayed put.
When three young and underclothed Americans (Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde, playing brother and sister, and Beau Garrett) are stranded after a bus accident in rural Brazil, they make a series of bad, lemming-like decisions that ultimately lead them into the home of a very angry Brazilian surgeon who deals in human organs on the black market. One of the first bad decisions is made by Garrett, when she blithely unharnesses her bodacious ta-ta’s on a public beach and inevitably marks herself, in the fine teen slasher, sex-equals-death tradition, as the first one to die. The Americans pick up a couple of Brits and an Australian from the bus and decide to stay on a secluded beach for the night, but they are drugged and robbed by what seems like an entire village of crafty Brazilians even the little children in preparation for their delivery to the doctor.
The two Brits ogle-eyed and dopey, hoping to engage in a little harmless sex tourism chose Brazil because it has the highest per capita ratio of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, and all of the clichés are in place (Spanish, Portuguese, whatever), as the bumbling gringos make cutesy faces over air kissing and offend the locals by taking snaps of their kids. Relatively harmless offenses, but when two lily-white turistas are carted through the jungle, strung up on stakes like pigs, the image panders to an American’s worst fears not only about what foreigners think of them, but what they would do, given a clean shot and a couple of roofies.
Those fears are of course made explicit by the doctor, as he is gutting the breast-barer and waxing acidic on his calling to punish Americans for their greed, their temerity in coming to his country to dance and drink and have sex. Though he relishes the idea of “the heart of an arrogant, gringo tourist” beating in a Brazilian, the ticker doesn’t travel so well, so he has to stick mainly with the liver and kidneys. Don’t ever tell your mom the plot of this movie.
Of course all of the messages are mixed and muddled and crude; Brazil’s ministry of tourism won’t be toasting any caipirinhas over the film, though there is a brief shot of some nice Brazilians pretty much as the credits roll. While cleaving to both the key elements of teen horror and the genre’s new fascination with torture, “Turistas” is a relatively tame entry on the gag-scale it certainly doesn’t bring us any closer to the snuff frontier than its predecessors and is more explicit in its depiction of Americans floundering outside of their comfort zone, almost completely hapless at the mercy of foreigners who hate them by default. Lest this be a dishearteningly heady assessment to the torture porn-mongers at Fox Atomic, let me also say that “Turistas” has finally won an endorsement from bloody-disgusting.com, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing.