Whether gothic, edgy or ’50s-style low-tech, as protagonists are buried alive, turned into pods or chased by flesh-eating monsters, good horror films disturb your comfort zones or tickle your fright processors, and bad ones simply push ugh buttons. “Turistas,” a stranger-in-paradise chiller, falls into the sorrier category.
The film presents itself as both a scarefest and a topical drama about cultural arrogance and economic divides. It fares pallidly on both fronts. Picture a light version of “Hostel” spiked with elements from “Babel” and “Dirty Pretty Things” and lots of silly ingredients associated with the genre.
The setting is Brazil, portrayed as a land of sexual freedom, exotic beaches and natives whose openness proves horrendously deceptive. The title characters are a handful of beautiful-boded ugly Americans (and, by extension, Brits and an Australian) — a pair of siblings (Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde), a best friend (Beau Garrett) and an adventuress (Melissa George), among others — who get stranded by a bus accident in a beach town. After several hours of partying and offending natives with their cultural ignorance, they end up robbed. Following a gnarly trek through the jungle, they become the captives of a mad doctor (Miguel Lunardi), a deranged Robin Hood of sorts.
While the surgery material, which involves organ transplants that force the rich to die so that the poor can live, has some memorable gruesomeness to it, the movie doesn’t develop its ideas enough to enable its creepy bits to transcend the exploitive. Basically, this is a standard horror flick in which sexually uninhibited, barely clad young people romp in the sun, make stupid mistakes, and (especially if they are flirty females) wind up massively screwed. Director John Stockwell (“Blue Crush”) competently moves the action along, but neither he nor screenwriter Michael Arlen Ross supply enough oomph or clarity to allow tension to climb or shock to sink in.
Visually, too, the film falters, suffering from a murky look that undermines the ability of its lengthy underwater escape sequence to grip us. The characters, meanwhile, are so dimly defined that it’s sometimes hard to remember who’s who, let alone feel invested in anybody’s fate. The villain, whose warped agenda has dramatic potential (in a B-movie way), is an insipid presence. The actors can’t provide dimension.
So, what’s to like? Try the Brazilian scenery — waterfalls, a forest primeval, underwater caverns. And consider the tag line: “Stay home.”
Starring Melissa George, Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde, Miguel Lunardi
Written by Michael Arlen Ross
Directed by John Stockwell
Running time 1 hour, 29 minutes