Turistas opens with a scene that is effectively chilling, but none-the-less completely destroys any mystery or suspense that the rest of the film might have been able to generate. A woman lies in a room strapped to a table, whimpering and begging for her life. In a few short edits we understand why she is there and what her captors are doing to her. Having that knowledge, the mystery of the film has been spelled out for us. We know what is stirring around the film’s central characters at every single moment for the rest of the story. This would be the equivalent of Hitchcock telling us everything about Norman Bates in a pre-credit sequence.
The suspense that the film would have generated without the scene is really quite good. Six tourists: Three Americans, two Brits and an Australian woman are on vacation in Brazil, on their way to the northeastern beaches. They decide not to fly but instead take a bus. The bus’ driver begins driving erratically and finally drives the bus over a cliff. Luckily, everyone is able to first bail out through the windows. With no transportation, the kids head off down the road and find a nice beach with a bar serving drinks. They do a little partying with the natives, drinking and dancing, until they notice that they are getting . . . a little woozy.
They wake up the next morning to find that they’ve been robbed, but also that something else is up. Hopelessly lost, they wander around the island trying to find help. But their partying the night before leads them in the direction of some local individuals who are in a business that is hazardous to the health of our heroes. More I can’t say, except that watching the rest of the film, I was stunned at how good the suspense was and disappointed that I already knew the film’s secret. When the kids find and empty house and open the cabinets and doors, we already know what everything means and what the owner of that house is up to.
One element that does maintain its suspense is the presence of a native named Kiko (Agles Steib), who has a sweet-face and a shy manner that endears him to these tourists. He seems like the nicest guy in the world, but for a long time we aren’t sure if we can trust him. When he takes the kids swimming in some underwater caves, there’s a nervous gleam in his eyes that makes us wonder if he’s helping his new friends or leading them into a trap.
Once the kids are aware of what is going on (too late for at least one of them) there is some semblance of morality to the villain, a doctor who is doing a noble thing but going about it in exactly the wrong way. Given some rewrites on the script, Turistas might have been in league with films like Return to Paradise or Extreme Measures, films that build suspense on the backs of real-life issues. As it plays out, this is just one more piece of gore porn, with chases and shoot-outs and pretty bodies. The closing scene is one of that standard chase-around-the-island scenes that we’ve seen a million times before, and seems to go on and on until whatever suspense was building has long since drained out.
Turistas was directed by John Stockwell, a former teen actor whom you might have seen in the 80s in films like Christine and My Science Project. As a director he specializes in making films about beautiful young people in pretty locations. He directed Crazy/Beautiful, Blue Crush and Into the Blue. He makes good films, but he has yet to make a great one. With Turistas, I just wish he would have rethought his screenplay. As it stands, it is thin, familiar and reveals its hand way too soon.