THE RUINS (2008)
After spending their entire vacation in Mexico drinking and lounging by the pool, two twenty-something couples take up their new German friend’s offer of checking out an ancient Mayan temple that is not in any tour books. Jeff, Amy, Stacy and Eric, along with Mathias who has a beat up map given to him by his brother to guide them, make the trek by taxi and foot to the temple. No sooner do they arrive at the Mayan pyramid which is canvassed in plants than a group of very angry locals armed with guns and bows sweep out of the jungle. The locals force the confused Americans up to the top of the pyramid and before making camp. They have no plans to leave, nor do they have any plans to let their very scared and bewildered targets off the temple.
Scared out of their wits, Jeff tries to take control of the situation and keep everyone rational. He believes that if they just sit and wait it out, that someone, anyone will notice they are missing and come find them. As long as they can keep their water supply and food rationed, they will survive. But, the group learns all to quickly that the plants which surround them have a taste for human blood, when Stacy discovers that the vines have grown inside her through an opened wound while they were sleeping! Panic, fear, and desperation quickly overtake the group as they grasp the true nature of what these plants can do, and when it becomes apparent that no one is coming to save them, they begin to understand that none of them are leaving the ruins alive.
What lies just off the beaten path of well-traveled and documented destinations for tourists? What happens when tourists who believe they are safe just because they are Americans find that nationality does not guarantee such perks? What does one do when they find themselves in true peril for the first time in their lives? Scott B. Smith, who wrote the novel The Ruins in 2003 and has adapted his own story for the screen, has a pretty good answer to these questions and definitely knows how to bring the hammer of unflinching terror down on his unsuspecting prey. Smith takes more than a few liberties with his own story, including a change of location, the alteration of almost every single character, and even changing his own ending, but the main motifs remain steadfast, and he certainly is no kinder to the audience this time around for the screen version.
Scott Smith’s characters reactions are well thought out with some depth given to each one during the minimal introductions, and for the most part play out their reactions to the situation like you would imagine the average person would. Jonathan Tucker, last seen in the television show THE BLACK DONNELLYS, takes charge as Jeff, and works well within the character’s insecurities as he tries to keep control. Shawn Ashmore, who looks almost unrecognizable from his clean-cut days as Iceman in the X-MEN movies, works as the polar opposite Eric, with drastic and brash ideas to escape. Admittedly though, there isn’t much emotional attachment to the characters aside from a few moments of genuine concern and pity for the situation they’ve fumbled into.
The feature-length film debut of Carter Smith (no relation to Scott Smith), who got his start with short-films and commercials, brings the non-stop page-turning tension of the book to life with surprising success. After the quick introductions of the characters that are just enough to get their names stuck in your head and figure out who is sleeping with who, Smith whisks the characters off the main set piece which is the temple’s top. In an affront to the dark, grimy and dirty styling that has become the norm in horror over the past few years, Smith lets almost the entire movie play out in broad daylight. Smith also plays with a different kind of claustrophobia than has been seen recently in the horror genre. Instead of small rooms dank underground passageways, the small temple top plays in absolute contrast to the wide shots of the jungle background.
Smith dishes out the intense and squirm inducing gore like no-one’s business with the help of special effects supervisor David Fletcher, especially within the extended and deleted scenes that have made their way back into the unrated version. With the brightly lit daytime sequences, every single moment of self-inflicted cutting and every infected open wound are plainly visible and made all the more harsh by the dedication to realism that the in-camera practical effects strive for. Adding to the almost nauseating realism of the gore are the sound effects, which include hair-raising bone cracks and gut-wrenching squishing of manipulated flesh.
The Ruins asks just one favor of the audience, and that is to embrace the idea that the plants and vines which cover the temple can exist. Is it from outer space? Is it some mutation from the years of human sacrifice on the temple by the Mayans? The answer of course is never given, nor does it matter. Man-eating plants have long been a staple in sci-fi and jungle-based horror and carnivorous plants do exist in the real world. The venus fly trap has evolved to attract its prey with a sickly-sweet smell, and Smith’s creation here has merely evolved a decoy geared toward attracting its human prey. While they are certainly no conventional villain, and do not have the personality of say Audrey II, the vines that cover the temple ruins stalk and kill with a satisfying efficiency and can be trusted to deliver the goods where it counts.
With nihilism to spare and a cringe-factor that can’t be beat, Smith’s bleak film is a gorehound’s delight that is viciously entertaining and may just do to walks in the tropics what JAWS did to bodies of water.