***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey
screenplay by Scott Smith, based on his novel
directed by Carter Smith
by Walter Chaw Based on a novel by the guy who wrote A Simple Plan and directed by first-timer Carter Smith, The Ruins was lost in the shuffle of a seeming barrage of beautiful-tourists-getting-slaughtered splatter flicks, which may prove to be one of the many genre legacies of the ugly-American, difference-abhorrent Bush Jr. administration. (Not to mention that the flick could easily be read as an eco-horror picture. Lots of legacies, that W., all of them fertile for the horror genre.) What distinguishes it from the Hostels and the Turistas' and Club Dreads is a seriousness in its execution and a feeling that there's nothing happening in the film that is a result of stupidity or even caprice--that the gauntlet our gorgeous heroes go through is only the best example of the futility of our evolution since The Blair Witch Project. It's a fable of that Sophoclean idea that knowledge brings no profit to the wise, and though it might be a reach, it feels in this time and place like a story about how knowing that we're going to get blown up by an angry young man over a large body of water doesn't do a thing to prevent it from occurring. It's a film that talks about hopelessness and, like in a powerful moment from Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the youth of its cast suddenly bespeaks of a squeezing-off of potential rather than just tits-and-ass exploitation. Closer to the point, the titillation you feel during the prologue of our cast bathing on a Mexican beach before embarking on their bloody, intimate deaths is brutally punished. The destruction of beauty in The Ruins (the title finally makes sense) becomes allegory for a collective fear of suffering: just as porn works on some level as a fantasy of "if she'll do that, she'll do me," The Ruins works on the level of, If it could happen to these kids, smart and beautiful, then it sure as shit is going to happen to me.
Vacationing Yankee brats Amy (Jena Malone), Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Stacy (Laura Ramsey), Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and Mathias (Joe Anderson) are doing a little Spring Breaking when the promise of adventure leads them to a Mayan ruin the locals are murderously disinclined to allow them to leave. With food running out and injury and illness taking their toll, the quintet discovers the real enemy: sentient vines alerted to their presence and evolved into allegory. Not much to figure out that The Ruins is about invasiveness, about violations of the human body in every possible phallic way (by penis, by knife, by vine) and by the idea that there's something engendered with every penetration. It's finally the adequate, accurate adaptation of Stephen King's remarkably unpleasant short story "The Raft" some twenty years after Creepshow 2 made hash of it, capturing in the moments between our CW cast that ring true youth at its most exultant--and youth at its strained terminus. The sussing out of relational dynamics against a backdrop of trauma is surprisingly affecting and punctuated not by crash scares and rimshots, but by moments of discovery that someone has lost something, someone has been desecrated, and the promise of bright futures has been sacrificed to a natural impulse. The Eden in The Ruins is overrun with too many plants bearing too much knowledge, suggesting that the world for young people about to enter it as adults is so strewn with landmines that it's wiser to turn away from globalism, enterprise, and diplomacy.
Jeff, pre-med, makes diagnoses, performs triage, and carries out invasive medical procedures (it bears mentioning that the prosthetics work on The Ruins is awesomely effective), but his knowledge doesn't save anyone once the infection takes hold. Amy is offered the most obvious character arc from silly, flirty girl to devoted domestic partner, but anchoring traditional societal order doesn't help the group's survival. Stacy is temptation, Eric is fidelity, German Mathias is exoticism, and there's no succour in those refuges, either--particularly as Stacy's lust is punished with the most severe "rape," Eric is betrayed by the object of his devotion, and Mathias's desire for leaving the beaten path is rewarded with first paralysis, then amputation, then an ignoble consumption by vegetation. (Let's not even bring up the Greek boys.) Smith resists the wonky camera angle and lets the drama unfold up close in lovely, sun-drenched tableaux. It's worth mentioning not simply because modern horror films are reliant on darkness and frenetic camerawork, but also because for a first feature, Smith demonstrates an unusual restraint and trust in his young cast. Nor is that faith misplaced, as each actor is well-cast; and while no one performance is truly spectacular, neither does anybody embarrass themselves or the material. The Ruins is excellent pulp: topical, thorny, and, if you choose it to be, a disgusting throwback monster flick in which hot young couples have sex right before they're eaten in a ghastly, inappropriate way by something gross.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Unrated version of The Ruins docks on Blu-ray from DreamWorks in a breathtaking 2.35:1, 1080p, VC-1-encoded video transfer that translates Darius Khondji's ace ('scope) cinematography with lovely fidelity. Black levels are pitch with no evidence of DVNR freeze and the grain structure is ultra-fine. Showcase stuff. The colours, particularly in the film's jungle sequences, are dazzling, as is the fine detail: every single blade of grass, every pebble, every limb...you get the idea. And crucially, the blood looks well and truly crimson--indeed, the picture's more repellent because it's so goddamn beautiful. My lone complaint is that whites, often purposefully blown-out, nevertheless sometimes run a bit too hot. The image is matched--perhaps surpassed--by 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio that booms, creeps, and rustles with the full fury and reason of a masterfully-crafted aural experience. (I didn't think a cell phone trill could bug me like it does here.) It's a completely immersive mix magnificently rendered; the volume is never overwhelming and the dialogue is as crisp as the screaming is sharp.
Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt provide a lively and informative film-length yakker, with Betancourt acting as interviewer and Smith proving himself a game subject. They cover the usual topics but do so with energy and humour while avoiding the inevitable pretentious moments. I liked the bit about worrying they were making Little Shop of Horrors in Mexico. "Making The Ruins" (14 mins.) is a standard but solid production featurette that includes producer Ben Stiller in a discussion of what they thought they were making with this film, while "Creeping Death" (15 mins.) is a sometimes-fascinating exploration of the vine effects and the lengths to which a team went to bring logic to a fictional plant. The decision to have it appear "not scary" seems minor, but ruffling through reams of concept art confirms that it wasn't. "Building the Ruins" (6 mins.) is a more standard production-design piece on erecting the temple and the fact that much of the movie was shot on an outdoor stage to keep the actors slightly uncomfortable in the elements and Smith on the hook for finishing shooting days by sunset. Five "Deleted Scenes" (12 mins.) with optional Smith/Betancourt commentary show extended moments of the kids bonding under duress as well as the two endings of the picture, of which the first--the one used in this unrated edition--is clearly superior. Smith expresses some chagrin that he let a screening audience dictate which of these would close out the theatrical cut when, honestly, whatever the choice, the people who see this movie would have felt the same: satisfied or not. Overall, an excellent presentation of a sleeper that, if you see it at all, you should see in its unrated incarnation. Not that DreamWorks have given Blu-ray owners a choice in the matter. Originally published: July 22, 2009.