Dark Tourist review: Netflix travel series takes you to some bizarre, shocking tourism spots around the world
Netflix's Dark Tourist asks an intriguing question about why we are attracted to weird and shocking things.
Travel shows are a dime a dozen. They mostly follow the same formula – overenthusiastic host travels to sponsored picturesque destinations, pretends to like the local food and participates in a string of music montages. However, Netflix’s Dark Tourist, presented by New Zealand journalist David Farrier, is very different. There’s a moment where Farrier walks into a room to pay a visit to a person who died a couple of years ago – and that’s just one of the milder moments of the show.
Farrier, if you don’t already know, was also responsible for arguably the best film of 2016 – Tickled,. The film explored a strange underground cult that utilised competitive tickling as a form of torture and exposed a criminal syndicate associated with it. It was hilarious and disturbing at the same time – and Farrier employs the same sort of nervous laughter shock therapy technique in Dark Tourist. He travels to some shady corners of the world as an enthusiast of dark tourism – a legitimate form of entertainment where people derive pleasure from messed up, often unsociable things.
It’s a wild ride as Farrier takes us along with him on bizarre and often organised tourist traps. There’s a moment where he steps into a taxi in Colombia for a Pablo Escobar tour, and the driver turns out to be an Escobar lookalike who threatens him with murder. And that just acts as a primer because we’re later introduced to Escobar’s real life assistant who served time in jail and now works as a celebrity guide who shows curious tourists where his boss killed people. It creates an uncomfortable yet somehow fascinating and giggle inducing atmosphere, and it gets only stranger the more we know about what went down under Escobar’s reign.
This could easily have been cheesy or silly but Farrier’s presentation makes all the difference here. His affable and amusing persona serves as a nice contrast to the insanity occurring around him. Tourist traps making money by exploiting dead people may seem like a morally bankrupt move but Farrier — being a reputed journalist rather than a shallow TV host — gives it the requisite shade of nuance. He doesn’t judge the hosts organising and people participating in the inexplicable activities he gets into. He doesn’t really take any pleasure from the weirdness; in fact, most times he is as scared as we are. There’s a segment set in Japan’s infamous suicide forest that was recently in the news for YouTuber Logan Paul making an ass out of himself by taking selfies with corpses; unlike Paul, Farrier treats the episode with sensitivity and an observational standpoint as opposed to an entertainment or a judgmental one.
His choice of subject matter is also key because the shock value that the show provides isn’t cheap like something out of Fear Factor or Jackass. The places that he takes us to are presented as either deeply cultural elements, or a progeny of clashing political ideologies, or even straight up dictatorship. The most memorable moment in the show isn’t a disgusting or gory visual but one where he attends a discount Olympics event in Turkmenistan while high on ketamine. The moment turns out to be a high point for guerilla journalism because he manages to sneak footage from a country – which is a cross between Las Vegas and North Korea – that is notoriously secretive and absolutely forbids foreigners telling the world about their dictator, who revels in deceit.
A criticism that the show could draw is that it only makes surface level explorations of the subjects, but that is a trade off you get when you dive into three different stories per 40 minute episode. The show also plays a little too safe at times – case in point a man in San Diego who runs a literal torture house and clearly seems like a psychopath but Farrier holds back on truly calling out his insanity, despite being very obviously disturbed by what he experiences.
On the other hand, the show does a good job of consistently drawing a basic question — why are we attracted to weird and shocking things? Is it because we need a change from our mundane lives? Or is it because we just want to understand why people do weird things – like being an audience for a Nazi reenactment shows, or being obsessed with serial killers who preserved their victims’ heads in refrigerators? Or is it that we postmodern humans only have a veneer of being civilised but are actually genetically still tribals, who would find solace in taking a bath with the blood of dead birds? Perhaps you should go on a dark tourism trip to find out. As filmmaker John Waters once said, "get more out of life, see a messed up movie."
Dark Tourist is now streaming on Netflix.
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