I hope with desperation that THE RUINS does well at the box office. DreamWorks, Red Hour Films and Spyglass Entertainment deserve the financial reward. Carter Smith, Scott B. Smith and the film’s five producers deserve the commercial approval, which is the only approval the studio industry takes stock in. They deserve credit for stepping up to the plate with an original horror property boasting an original premise, an anomalous feat in this age of retreads and safe market bets. More to the point, they deserve accolades not merely for delivering an original studio picture, but for delivering a good, original studio picture. A distinction of one word, but a crucial distinction that I am confident will land THE RUINS as one of the more exhilarating horror films of 2008.
On the last day of a tourist jaunt at a Mexican hotel, couples Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Amy (Jena Malone), Eric (Shawn Ashmore) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) decide to accompany fellow traveler Mathias (Joe Anderson) on a trip into the jungle to meet up with his brother at an off-the-guide-book archaeological dig site atop a Mayan pyramid. Little time is wasted before things are kicked into gear. Locals surround the tourists, killing one in their group as a warning before trapping them on the vine covered pyramid.
Compounding the dire situation, the stunned collegiates soon learn getting shot in the face by the locals below may be preferable to the fate the eager Vines have to offer.
The Vines – a character all their own deserving of proper noun capitalization – are the film’s triumph. THE RUINS has an inventory of worthy qualities, but the Vines are king. They are a vicious, brutal force and their non-human origin (and intentional lack of justification) make for one of the most successful genre antagonists in recent years. Director Carter Smith knows when to show ’em, when to hide ’em, and when to let them loose violence in an ear pounding cacophony. Their behavior and synergy with the ruins is fascinating to boot.
Though its template may imply it, THE RUINS avoids becoming a typical Americans-out-of-place genre shocker thanks to one Smith’s script and another Smith’s direction. The Smith’s have the novel idea of utilizing their setting as, surprise, a set piece while sidestepping the xenophobic tendencies of inferior tourist horror films (read: HOSTEL). On the unfortunate side, the stock of characters are, well, just that; stock. On a positive note, all four overcome their standard roles by film’s end, but the grating annoyance of Amy and the boringness of boyfriend Jeff is felt early and felt hard.
Predictable characters are overcome by committed performers. Normally I find Jonathan Tucker tries too hard and Shawn Ashmore can’t help but stand out as an actor, but they do develop weight and sympathy with the viewer. Same goes for Jena Malone (who is dealt a bad role, frankly), but Laura Ramsey and Joe Anderson are level from the beginning. It is these two who are responsible for the film’s most memorable scenes and I’m confident that, even if THE RUINS isn’t a hit, casting directors and males everywhere are going to have a thing for Ramsey after this. Not just because of her subtle nudity pre-pyramid, but the girl has got fear chops. The way she handles a personal invasion by the Vines is unnerving to say the least.
As much as I’d love to paint THE RUINS without flaw, that ‘taint the case. Smith’s script is burdened with a lopsided structure. The glorious obstacles the travelers face are of such outstanding difficulty from the get go that their plight is futile. The pyramid is transformed into a literal stomach, the humans bumbling about it are morsels waiting to be digested. These stacked odds become a waiting game for any active minded viewers, but thankfully watching the digestion unfold provides more than enough action to sate the appetite of horror fans.
I know I’ll be making the trip back to an unusual Mayan temple to see it all again, that’s for sure. I recommend you do the same, preferably on the big screen. Everyone involved with this film deserves the support. THE RUINS is good enough to draw box office returns equivalent to a pat on the back, the squirming audience I saw it with is proof of that, but here is to hoping it is one helluva heartfelt pat.