Beach blanket backlash

‘Turistas’ has a slight intolerance for annoying American spring-break types

Michael Garberich

American horror films have always gauged our society’s anxieties and provided a haven, however horrifying it may seem, for us to safely cull out the threats without actually confronting them.

DIRECTED BY: John Stockwell
STARRING: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde
PLAYING AT: Area Theaters

Take the 1980s, for example. Amid the AIDS epidemic, “Friday the 13th” enacted on-screen vengeance against those promiscuous camp counselors whose negligent sexual preoccupations resulted in the death of a young boy.

We’ve hardly overcome the guilt of idleness incarnate in oversexed, underworked (and oh-so-underproductive) youth today, but the sensitive social landscape has undergone some obvious transformations, and “Turistas” is the latest horror flick to think it has something important to say about our society. But let’s make this clear straight away: It doesn’t.

The film opens with a scene of frantic closeups of a young woman strapped to a doctor’s chair and pleading for her life. The footage has a pseudo-documentary graininess to it that other horror films have used to up their realism, but its use feels like a cheaply contrived knockoff, a sensation that is appropriately symptomatic of the entire hour-and-a-half film.

The story follows a group of young travelers from the United States, England and Australia who partake in a scintillating day and night of firm-bodied hedonism at a Brazilian seaside cabana after escaping their tour bus that rolled down a hillside in the winding roads along the country’s southern exposure. The rote night of dancing, drinking and sex expected of college-age youth leads to a morning without passports, money or memories.

Desperate, they wander to a village, and when it’s apparent they’re not welcome, a local teen leads them to a house deep into the woods where a mad doctor has plans to remove their organs in the name of “third-world” justice.

Josh Duhamel (previously seen as a piece of man meat in the title role of “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”) leads the cast of so-called up-and-comers. He is joined by Olivia Wilde, who plays his adventurous sister Bea and for whom he’s been assigned as chaperone by his parents – tweenies will recognize Wilde as Mischa Barton’s former love interest on “The OC.” The rest of “Turistas’ ” cast is a similar array of skin-deep stars likely to grace the hallowed pages of “Seventeen” and “Glamour.”

Still, like last year’s gore-porno “Hostel,” “Turistas” wants to be a clever indictment against the “first world,” whose abundance of wealth and leisure brings them to “third worlds” where they exploit the “exotic” locals and their land.

The scant moralistic tale for the 21st century’s affluent, free wheelin’ and increasingly bored youth is comparable to novelist Benjamin Kunkel’s 2005 debut “Indecision,” without the merit. Kunkel’s protagonist traveled to South America while at an impasse in his life, taking an experimental drug to cure his indecision. The novel worked because it reached beyond irony, equally aware of the deserved decry against the social inequities between the “first” and “third” worlds and of its impotence to fix them.

But “Turistas,” whose victims are collateral damage in a cultural war between the supposed “haves” and “have nots,” traveled to a country with a cast of young, beautiful, well-to-do coeds to make a movie aimed at 17- to 24-year-old “haves” (the targeted market for burgeoning Fox Atomic, a division of 20th Century Fox).

Despite its timely consciousness of a privileged West free to traverse an increasingly globalized world, it is hard to accomplish anything when your praxis clashes this starkly with your ideology. “Turistas,” accordingly, is a far cry from an accomplishment.