Murder 'n' mayhem on the agenda in 'Turistas'

Special to The Times

"I wanna go home," a young woman whimpers in the first scene of "Turistas." She's strapped to an operating table, and to judge from her muffled shrieks and the malevolent-looking figure reflected in her pupil, the procedure under way is something other than routine. Thus begins the first release from Fox Atomic (20th Century Fox's new genre division), a wholly predictable bit of slasher unpleasantness and a muddled cautionary tale on the American propensity for foreign misadventures.

Set on the beaches and in the rain forests of rural Brazil, the movie is a scenic variation on this year's "Hostel," which devised some gruesome fates for Ugly Americans at play in the former Eastern Bloc. The stereotypical Brazilian backdrop of free-flowing caipirinhas and bikini-clad babes is a natural fit for the teen-horror genre, where the karmic laws are rooted in a deep, punitive puritanism. The bumbling British sex tourists will be duly sacrificed. But not before the buxom blond whose only memorable line is "Would you guys mind if I went topless?"

"Turistas" seeks to exploit the current craze for torture-porn, but it lacks the relentless sadism of the "Saw" franchise. More than half the movie is dull buildup, as the lambs (clueless gringo tourists, thrown together after a bus accident) are herded slowly to the slaughter (an organ-harvesting mad doctor).

This is the first horror effort from director John Stockwell, a pro at aquatic voyeurism ("Blue Crush," "Into the Blue"). Here he hurries through the gross-out centerpiece as if himself grossed out and reverts to what he knows best. "Turistas" climaxes with a long, dark pursuit through a warren of underwater caves. The intent may be to induce claustrophobia, but the sequence is so murky and disjointed that it inspires only confusion.

Every now and again, "Turistas" connects with the harsh reality of the real world -- one in which, thanks to the ongoing war in Iraq, Americans are increasingly viewed as imperialist aggressors. There is one political diatribe against the sins of the rapacious First World, but it loses much of its sting for being delivered by the evil doctor (Miguel Lunardi) as he rummages about in someone's abdominal cavity.

The heroes (led by a leaden Josh Duhamel) are punished for their insensitivities and their invasiveness: assuming Brazilians speak Spanish, not Portuguese, and taking photos of local kids as if they were zoo exhibits. But "Turistas" -- in bearing out their worst fears and then some -- is less a critique than an embodiment of paranoid xenophobia.


MPAA rating: R for strong graphic violence and disturbing content, sexuality, nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In general release.

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