Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Brazil – land of sun, sea, samba and surgery without anaesthetic. Not the best tourist board tagline perhaps but a reasonable summary of director John Stockwell’s well-made yet ultimately unsatisfying foray into the grindhouse genre.

Since Eli Roth brought a new dimension to the classic horror scenario of young and attractive but not too clever Yanks in peril by cranking the gore factor up to 11 with the likes of Cabin Fever and Hostel, the demand for such ‘in yer face’ existential shockers has mushroomed. Sometimes it seems barely a week goes by without another entry promising even bloodier and more ‘uncompromising’ violence.

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Speaking as a confirmed non-devotee (I love horror but Hitchcock could make you shiver with a funny look and even Dario Argento never relied solely on schlock) I was interested to see what Stockwell and debut screenwriter Michael Arlen Ross, both newcomers to the genre, would bring to the party.

And the start is a promising slow-burn. A bus crash in rural Brazil literally throws together a disparate group of backpackers: buffed jock-type Alex (Josh Duhamel), who is chaperoning his sister Bea (Olivia Wilde) and her shy best friend Amy (Beau Garrett); hippyish Aussie trail veteran Pru (Melissa George); and comic relief Brit beer-and-shag monsters Finn (Desmond Askew) and Liam (Max Brown).

They strike out together, encouraged by reports of a fabulous beach bar nearby. Sure enough, they alight on a scene straight from the brochures and proceed to drink, dance and flirt the night away.

But the caprihinias come with a Mickey Finn chaser and next morning they wake to find the bar, together with all their worldly goods, has vanished. Staggering into the nearest town, they conduct a masterclass in antagonising the locals and only the intervention of one of the partygoers from the night before, Kiko (Agles Steib), saves them from a lynch mob.

Full of apologies, he offers to lead them to his uncle’s hacienda. Having little alternative, they follow him deeper into the jungle, stopping only to clean up by diving into a hidden lagoon with stunning underwater caves. But on arrival they find out the truth – Kiko has an ulterior motive and uncle Zamora (Miguel Lunardi) is that oft-encountered cinematic amalgam of brilliant surgeon and utter fruitcake.

Convinced that all American tourists are kidnappers intent on using the locals as fodder for cheap and easy organ transplants north of the border, he’s set up his own parallel facility to supply the local hospitals. And the waiting list’s just been reduced by five…

If this sounds like a lengthy set-up, that’s because it is. Despite a running time of barely 90 minutes, this film seems to take an age to get to the point. It’s a brave decision of Stockwell’s to give his characters so much space before the fur starts to fly. Scenarios like this work best when hapless protagonists (and the audience) are thrown into a world of pooh without any orientation time. The idea presumably was that here the audience gets to know and sympathise with the characters as people, rather than disposable screams on legs.

Trouble is, they’re not that nice or sympathetic people. Josh comes across as a dumb lug, suspicious and scathing of everything about Brazil. Bea and Amy are vacuous valley girls whose main purpose seems to be to provide bikini and wet T-shirt shots for the Loaded sector of the audience – who might well recognise themselves in Finn and Liam, gormless oiks who see world travel as one long cheap party and fall to bickering and whinging when the hangover comes. Only Pru seems like a character with any life outside of the film.

As their saga unfolds, I for one became increasingly impatient with them. Add to this the fact that the opening scene and several afterwards make clear exactly what their potential fate will be and the result is a serious slackening-off of tension. By the time the backpackers escape and make their bid for freedom the nuts-in-a-vice intensity that the best examples of the genre have just isn’t there.

However, the extended jungle chase and final dust-up with Zamora and his henchmen is well-handled – apart from one long scene where the underwater caves reappear. The cinematography is terrific, but the action simply unbelieveable. Ordinary, exhausted tourists perform feats of breath control and endurance that would put a champion free-diver to shame. Underwater combat is just too slow and balletic to maintain any tension in a piece that’s supposed to be viscerally realistic.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that some (but alas, not all) of our quintet live to buy another Lonely Planet guide - so what exactly was the point? If Stockwell and Ross wanted to make a point about the high-handed attitude to the Third World of your average gap-year traveller, they undermine it by depicting all the Brazilians as psychos, brutes, cowards or (if female) temptresses; if they wanted to cash in on the grindcore boom, they dilute its core virtues of plain, cold-eyed terror. The end result suffers from being both over-ambitious in some ways and overly formulaic in others.

Reviewed on: 11 Feb 2007
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A gang of backpackers find themselves terrorised in the Brazilian jungle.
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Read more Paradise Lost reviews:

Susanna Krawczyk ***

Director: John Stockwell

Writer: Michael Ross

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde, Desmond Askew, Beau Garrett, Max Brown, Agles Steib, Miguel Lunardi

Year: 2006

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Glasgow 2007

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