Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review: "The Ruins"

I love the horror season. It usually comes in the spring, a gory prelude to the haven that is summer blockbusters and a healthy cap on January and February, aka: cinematic wasteland. I haven't actually seen a good horror flick in quite a while. "Disturbia," which came out last year around this time, I absolutely loved. It was stylistic and fresh, not to mention a pretty descent Alfred Hitchcock rip-off. And so now, we have The Ruins, a gruesome kick-off to a season of fear and dismemberment, and, well, quite surprisingly, a success(?).

The question mark is because I read the book last summer, and it sucked. I found it on one of those random afternoons in Barnes and Noble. Craving something fast and science fictiony, I gravitated toward a table titled Beach Reads, or something like that, and I found this. The Ruins by Scott Smith. Smith turns out to be a severely mediocre writer. He uses words like 'slipperier' and gives his main characters painfully boring names. The one thing he does do well is appeal to very deep, very primal human fears. Paralysis, hunger, dehydration, open wounds...vines crawling around under your skin. He knows how to trigger the gag reflex.

So does the film.

I thought the movie was better than the book. It switched around a lot of character roles, changed a little bit of the rising action, and completely altered the ending. But still, when I closed The Ruins, I wanted to throw the book at Scott Smith's head. The movie, however, left me feeling a little something: A pure, squeemish love for the horror genre.

The movie revolves around the plight of four main characters: Amy (Jena Malone), her boyfriend Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and Stacy's boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore). The four friends are college grads on vacation in Mexico, Cancun I think, where they've just spent a week or two lounging on the beach, drinking ridiculous amounts of tequila and, perhaps, cheating on each other with the sort of reckless abandon that comes only with the Hollywood interpretation of college life. Anyway. One more day before the end of the trip, and the friends meet a handsome German tourist named Mathias (Joe Anderson) whose brother has run off with some hottie archaeologist to a dig that dwells "off the map." He and another tourist, a Greek named Dimitri, are heading out the next day to meet him. Jeff really wants to go. He's the adventurer, the survivor. He's going to med school, and he wants some damn culture before heading back to Winnetka. After a little convincing, the rest decide it might be fun as well. So they take a bus, and then a cab, and then a hidden path deep in the Mayan jungle. Eventually, they're met with a tower of stairs and floral vines. Amy wants to take pictures, but the Mayans from the village show up, and they're angry. When Amy steps into the mysterious vines, the Mayans become hostile. They kill the Greek and force the rest onto the ruins.

And FYI: In the book, Dimitri calls himself Pablo and plays a much larger role. But it doesn't really matter that he gets his head blown off in first twenty minutes of the film, because the characters in this story don't have anything real at stake. They are rich, idiot kids that have walked unknowingly into a death trap. None of them are particularly likable, except for maybe Mathias, and he meets, perhaps, the most gruesome end of all. So, you see, it's not about the people as much as it's about what can happen to people in the most desperate of situations. Hunger, thirst, open wounds...vines crawling around under your skin. It's horrifying at times, visceral and laden with the rawest, worst parts about the human condition. When they think they hear a cell phone ringing in a mine shaft, they send Mathias down to check it out. The rope gives, and Mathias falls, breaking his back. Amy and Stacy go down after him, hoist him onto a make-shift back board, grisly cracks and all. The girls go back down with lit torches and venture deeper into the shaft. They discover then, that there is no phone. It is merely the vines, which have mimicked the sound to lure fresh meat into their trap.

The vines are smart. They pit the characters against each other and cleverly crawl into mouths, sores, open wounds. They can mimic voices, and they feed on human flesh, human excrement, human anything. The book chose to focus more on this psychological twist; however, the film chose to focus on the sheer horror of a predatory plant. A plant that can drive a human being to cut into her own flesh, that devours human tissue like its water from the soil. Meanwhile, the Mayans salt the earth around the ruins. They keep watch, heavily armed, unrelenting. The vine cannot spread. The Mayans have no other objective than to contain it, to keep it from destroying anymore lives than those that so stupidly stumble upon it. Here is a movie wrought with desperation. It is filled with the worst kind of fear, that fear that comes when the characters know they're going to die, and probably in some disgusting, bloody way, too. The end of the movie is better than the end of the book, but I won't give it away here. I'll recommend this movie for a good scare. Not for fantastic character work or snappy dialogue. It's certainly no Disturbia, but it did do, quite well, what it set out to do. It scared the shit out of me.

The one thing this film lacked in the way of modern horror, however, was style. It displayed some interesting scene work and a few intriguing shots, but overall, the editing seemed rushed at best. I liked this movie, though, no matter how haphazard it turned out to be. I think that if any critic expects anything more than that, they're not doing their job.

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