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The Ruins. 2008. Directed by Carter Smith. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel of the same name.
Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, & Joe Anderson. DreamWorks Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment/Red Hour.
Unrated. 93 minutes.
For the past couple decades especially, heading down South on vacation is popular among North American men and women, often breaking away from work or school to do a week of all-inclusive eating and drinking at some resort; a rich resort planted right next to some of the poorest areas of Mexico, and other similar places. At the same time, most of them never experience any real Mexican culture or whichever culture in the midst of which they find themselves. I’d go straight to see the ruins and depending on where I was castles, the whole lot. Whatever I could.
Often when people associate a kind of horror with these types of vacations, we imagine the real life horror that’s all too prevalent in the world: kidnappings and ransoms, armed robbery, murders and the like. The Ruins takes a more supernatural styled look at the Mexican vacation, depicting what happens when the ignorance of tourists leads them towards a fate more dangerous, more evil than anything human beings had planned. In a tale of culture shock mixed with an eco-creature feature, director Carter Smith uses the screenplay from Scott B. Smith (based on his own novel) to give us an exciting, dread filled ride into unknown terror. Best of all, where so many similar films preying on the tourist’s fear of foreign places opt to make the people of those places the villainous presence, The Ruins unearths a far more ancient antagonist than anyone living near the Mexican jungle.
I’m honestly not a huge fan of supernatural horror, if that’s what you can call this one. Either way, there are only a certain number of these types of movies I genuinely enjoy. Many of them classics of the genre. Regardless, I have an affinity for stories about ruins, of any type. Their history, the possibly alternate history of what we know, there are so many incredible stories behind a lot of these monoliths, megaliths, and other structures. This story involves the Mayan temples, so depending on what you read there is a plethora of ways this can play in your mind. Part of why The Ruins works is because there’s a slight mystery. Despite getting plenty eeriness involved with the ruins in question, the vines and whatever grows inside and around them, there’s still a lingering mysterious nature to what’s happening. We’re never fully explained anything. Rather, we glean the terrifying nature of whatever lurks in those ruins via the Mexican locals surrounding the temple, their actions. On top of everything else a main factor in the deaths of most characters is paranoia. Once the madness of the plot really kicks into gear there’s all sorts of second guessing, paranoid thought, and general insanity. In fact, only one character is actually killed by the vines. I didn’t realize that until watching it once more this time around, yet there we have it. So there’s an interesting quality to a movie about an evil growth inside the Mayan ruins that defers most of its horror kills to an entirely human element.
Added to that writing does some interesting stuff with the characters. While I felt they could’ve been developed a bit more there is solid tension created between them. For instance, Amy (Jena Malone) tries to kiss Mathias (Joe Anderson) while she has a boyfriend, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker). Then Mathias ends up falling down that shaft and getting injured. So there’s this weird aspect where Amy feels for him yet still loves her boyfriend. This doesn’t get explored enough, though it’s interesting as an additional element to all the paranoia that ends up coming out later.
I dig the effects, too. We get a quick head explosion within the initial 25 minutes, so that’s never a bad sign when we’re talking horror. That whole part is great, as the guy gets hit with an arrow, followed by a slight silence, followed by getting his head blown off. A nasty, true genre effect. Not sure, but the headshot looks CGI, and still it’s well done. They don’t linger on any close-ups too much. It’s a nice effect that works, as this then sends the rest of the group up onto the temple, ensuring there’s immediate suspense to the location.
One of the most devastating moments – to me – is when Mathias falls down the shaft of the temple into complete darkness. It’s such a subtle moment that could’ve been louder, more brash. Anderson doesn’t even scream, he just drops into the darkness and lands with a cracking thud, a small noise. All around an unsettling moment, which then of course gets things going in terms of tension.
Things only deteriorate amongst the group, all the while those nasty vines work their way – literally – under their skin. And of course ours, as well. When Stacy (Laura Ramsey) wakes up with the vines pushing into her leg, then Jeff also finds Mathias in the same state, it is horrendous. Almost verges on body horror, so there are many aspects which play into the film overall. Some time afterwards they wind up having to amputate a leg from poor Mathias. You can imagine how sloppy things get. Even scarier is when the vines come out to take the chopped off shins and feet. They assimilate it, and the group really discovers the sinister side of this awful vacation.
Another absolutely scary bit is after the flowers on the vines start repeating Stacy, screaming in their high pitched, growling voices. It’s such a creepy scene that always makes me cringe, as the sound gets louder, more abrasive, more chilling.
Even if the characters could’ve used more development, the actors do well with the material. I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Tucker specifically ever since The Black Donnellys, he did a wildly unsettling turn on Hannibal. Here he plays a normal guy, an M.D. hopeful (who even gets to put some of his knowledge to use). He doesn’t fall into all the classic horror movie tropes, though some of the others do at times. Aside from him the others are decent, Shawn Ashmore is solid, Joe Anderson, too. Jena Malone’s performance is another I enjoy because her character is complex, conflicted, so with all that and this completely disastrous vacation there’s a wealth of emotion in her.
This is definitely worthy of 3&1/2-stars. There are certainly aspects in the screenplay that could be improved, and some of the acting does border on cliche. Although on the whole The Ruins is intense, it’s suspenseful. There aren’t really jump scares, so much as there’s a generally pervasive air of dread that’s present from the moment this group wanders into the jungle. With an interesting premise, the story worms inside your head the way the paranoia does to these characters, how the vines crawl under the skin of its victims. You can do a lot worse than this interesting horror. At least it tries to do something different without having to fill the script with expository dialogue, big explanations. We do get bits and pieces. Otherwise, the mystery is perpetual right to the end, and this only helps all the creeping, crawling horror of the vine-y creatures. What has a supernatural air to it also comes along with body horror, paranoia, violence, and lots of other macabre delights.