*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Those “and I would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for you, meddling kids!” moments where, for a second, one feels like the mystery has unraveled and we can rest easy knowing the beast has been slain. That is exactly what Rooms for Tourists (Habitaciones para turistas) fails to provide –and rightfully so. Released in 2004 and produced in Argentina, it was Adrián García Bogliano’s first feature film. Moving between that country (Penumbra, 2011; Cold Sweat, 2010); Spain (I’ll never die alone, 2008), Mexico (Scherzo Diabólico, 2014; Here Comes the Devil, 2012) and Sweden (Black Circle, 2018), among other places, García Bogliano has amassed a number of features that hold their own in the genre.
The film seems to be bold in its first visual attack. A girl daydreams in the countryside only to be interrupted by her dog, Otto –brace yourself, Dorothy–, who leads her to a garbage pile in which she finds a baby’s corpse. She is discovered by a middle-aged woman that beats Otto to death and threatens to do the same to her. We are then able to see the same woman doused in gasoline. A match is lit and her fate is certain. Any educated guess would rightfully arrive to the centrality of women in this film.
Snapping out of the first horrid sequence are Elena and Theda, two young women sitting side by side on a bus who upon talking for a bit discover that they are headed in the same direction. From then on, they join other three young women headed from Buenos Aires to Trinidad, a town in the Argentinian countryside. True to its essence as a slasher film, the composition of the group plays by clear and stereotypical ways of performed femininity: the film geek (Silvia), the intellectual (Elena), the girly girl (Ruth), the generic goth (Lydia) and the shy scaredy-cat (Theda), which rules out any evident affinity among them. They reach San Ramón, where they are supposed to commute towards Trinidad, to discover that the whole town is away at church. There, they witness the way in which preacher Horacio allegedly expels the devil from a woman in a less than spectacular fashion. After the unexpected sight and upon finding the train station, the young women realize that they have missed the train and will be stranded in San Ramón until further notice. This forces them to spend the night in rooms that a man from town, Néstor, rents out to tourists. All the way to the house, and later in the film, the middle-aged man flirts with Silvia, a much younger film student. It is not at all insignificant that due to circumstance there is a man fronting the otherwise all-female group, which is left to his mercy in his turf: he is calling the shots now. After a rather awkward dinner where Horacio patronizes the girls, the ominous promise of the black and white film is fulfilled by an anonymous butcher with a cleaver. Sorority develops between all the girls as a necessary bond to survive a mad killer that chases them throughout the night.
While trying to gain control of the situation and threatening their hosts, the remaining women help us confirm our suspicions. They have all ended up in San Ramón because they were headed to Trinidad in search of the same thing: a clandestine abortion. It is then that the vital role of sorority for survival in this film parallels with the role it plays in reality, in an environment where the legitimacy of women’s experiences is relentlessly questioned and fails to provide equal access to the termination of pregnancy.
Theda is our guide throughout most of the film and will ultimately remain with us until the very end. She dares to stare, and even when rendered powerless, it is her eyes that claim what little possibility of action left to her. She is also harassed by what seem to be hallucinations that only reinforce the idea that all the young women in the house are doomed. Theda is the only character that shows herself hesitant from the beginning, and the only one lucky enough to get away from San Ramón, where the tradition of intercepting young women and murdering them for seeking abortion goes on without hindrance. Guided by a perverted sense of righteousness, and facilitated by the referral of the women’s own doctor, the townsfolk covertly perform the dirty work of patriarchy.
One can then make sense of the first couple of minutes of the film, which are revisited as the story wraps up and are suggested to show the fate of the last woman that dared provide abortion there. We are invited to witness the injustice behind her brutal demise. Enabling freedom in this context seems punishable by being burned at the stake, an echo to witchcraft if there ever was one. This is reinforced by the inescapable presence of Christian righteousness represented by Horacio and the constant references to religion that tie reproductive sovereignty to questionable morality. Consequently, with Horacio as the church and town patriarch, the source of alleged rectitude is successfully located on male authority and legitimized to know, act and regulate for the sake of “the common good”.
Another aspect that confirms that order is restored and the cycle will go on is the fact that Theda never becomes a final girl that slays the monster and emerges triumphant. Until the end, she is pestered by a mob of angered men fronted by Horacio, who describes the slain young women as “scum, junkies, whores” who would not be missed. These events are revealed to be only a tiny cog in a much larger historical machine. What is more, even when Theda manages to escape the town alive, the town stays with her: she is blinded with a knife in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street. The possibility of agency that sight represents as a means to reclaim knowledge in horror film is also denied. Sorority is foiled and the impossibility of freedom is clear, as she knows too much and has to be punished.
Life goes on.
The onus of Theda’s name also follows her until the end. The first few minutes of the film, she explains to Elena she was named after an actress her grandmother liked, who can only be thought to be Theda Bara. The claimed first sex symbol of film lends her name to a character whose desire for agency is rewarded with violence. The threat of female autonomy is contained and the attempt of erasure of both Thedas is a product of others deciding their respective fates. This subtle comment seems to also appeal to the very reality of abortion in Latin America, where women’s individual stories of injustice are only a small cog in a huge, self-serving machine from which they cannot reap benefits.
Rooms for Tourists has never been as pertinent as it is today. Regardless of the 14 years of distance between that first wondrous travelling shot (which would later become a motif in Bogliano’s work) and today, the horror that lies underneath is far from dated.
The mode of delivery, where the butchering of women is showcased, only exacerbates the urgency of the topic and invites for a certain ambiguity regarding the role of a gendered perspective from within the narrative.
The film speaks to a historical moment where the hope of decriminalizing abortion in Argentina was cut short by the Senate voting against it this August. In this country, abortion is only legal in cases of rape and when the mother’s life is at risk. However, the prevalence of unsafe clandestine procedures that represent an alternative to a highly restrictive landscape when it comes to female reproductive sovereignty is a reality in Latin America at large. As a consequence, these procedures are one of the main causes of maternal mortality in a region where structural, cultural and penal reasons allow for sexual violence to thrive. Nevertheless, it remains totally illegal in many countries (among them El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua), and while it is legal but heavily red-taped under special circumstances in others (Brasil, Argentina, Mexico) it attests to the daunting difficulty of pushing back against the inescapable influence of the Catholic Church in political and public life.
The fact that Rooms for Tourists plays with the slow-burning creation of allegiance and ambiguously hints towards the monstrosity of the townsfolk as reproachable lingers when the film is placed in this context. It establishes a hopeless scenario and articulates it with such detachment that one cannot help reading it as a fit allegory of the prevalence of patriarchy. It effectively renders the gaze as disinterested and almost factual while revealing that, until the end and for all effects and purposes, the conversation about abortion remains on everybody else’s court –but not women’s. We cannot escape the deadly cost of freedom, and García Bogliano succinctly captures the fact.
by Valeria Villegas Lindvall
Valeria is a Mexican ghoul living in Sweden. She is a PhD student in Film Studies at University of Gothenburg, where she is currently conducting research about Latin American horror film with a feminist focus. She is also part of the editorial board for MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, journal founded by Dr. Anna Backman Rogers and Dr. Anna Misiak, and has also worked in several publications, most prominently at Rolling Stone Mexico.