Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: The Ruins

Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey
Director: Carter Smith
Release Date: April 4, 2008
Running Time: 91 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Dreamworks Pictures

To the horror genre, the idea of young Americans being terrorized on vacation isn’t breaking any new ground. The setting has been around almost since the inception of the genre, explored as early on as Friday the 13th. What is it about the concept that makes for such a good, if not slightly overused setting? The idea of any good horror movie is to play against peoples common fears. Being on vacation automatically puts people on the defensive because they are out of their element. Ranging from flying to get there in the first place to simply being around people they don’t know, vacations can be a breeding ground for good horror.

As with any successfully used screenwriting device, young Americans encountering danger on vacation is becoming clich├ęd. We’ve seen it used very well (Open Water, Deliverance, and, most recently, The Descent – my vote for the best horror movie of the decade) as much as we’ve seen it used poorly (Hostel, Wolf Creek, and Turistas). As much as they all have the commonalities of playing against basic human fears, the Hostel’s of the world have opted to ride the latest flavor of the moment and splatter gallons of blood across the screen in lieu of telling a compelling story. Don’t get me wrong; the idea of getting chopped to bits in a foreign country is probably pretty scary if it is happening to you, but for sheer watchability, call me crazy but I need something more.

Ask and you shall receive…

The Ruins is the latest entry in the “Why Foreign Countries Scare Young American Travelers” sweepstakes. The textbook opening finds four friends – Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Amy (Jena Malone), Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) – nursing hangovers at a Mexican resort. They are two days from the end of their trip and trying to decide how to spend the tail end of it. Enter Mathias (Joe Anderson), a fellow vacationer from Germany. You are weary of him because you can’t quite make him out. And you are weary of him because vacation horror movie convention tells you that you should be. Both he and his friend Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas) are heading to an ancient Mayan pyramid the next day to look for Mathias’ brother, believed to have gone to an archialogical dig site in the area. They leave a copy of the map with a separate set of guys, the Greeks, to catch up with them later. After a bit of discussion, the whole gang decides to embark on a trek the pyramid the next day. The ruins are not located on any map and vague warnings from the locals fall on deaf ears. After hiking through the jungle together, they happen upon the ruins. So far, not really much to write home about. Interesting enough but riding a wave of anticipation to this point.

As soon as they reach the ruins and without immediate explanation, they are ambushed by Mayan natives, killing one, and forced to the top of the pyramid at gunpoint. The natives set up camp, presumably to ensure that no one escapes. At this point we still do not understand why. It is in not understanding where the picture begins to take hold. Without spoiling the movie I will say there is more than simply refugee natives and foreign travelers to be weary of. Our travelers soon realize the vines at the site of the ruins seem to not only be alive, but deadly to whoever makes contact with them. Both physically and psychologically.

As the movie progresses the feeling of the film quickly shifts from uncertainty and confusion to that of hopelessness and primal fear. As ironic a statement is I am about to make, the hopelessness in the movie is its high point. Most critics have panned the film for its bleak outlook but I believe the unsettling tone is what makes it as good as it is. The performances all around are just, ok. It is the tone that is set by the story that makes the movie stand out. There is gore, and some of it is difficult to watch, but a perfect balance between gore and tension is met. It is used just sparingly enough, and at the perfect times, that it plays into the film and the story more than a device to advance it. The filmmakers know the material enough to understand the movie should not pander to the type of audience that would make Prom Night the highest grossing movie in the country.

I liked the movie because of its simplicity. I liked the movie because you were never really sure of anyone’s intentions. This allowed the filmmakers to achieve something unique by involving the audience in the story enough to put them on the defensive. The simplicity of the story added to the overall feeling of hopelessness as the movie wore on. For the record, I know the difference between the ending of the book and the movie, and I liked the movie version better. Maybe I didn’t like it better but it played out better on screen, adding a spice of Greek tragedy that helped sell the movie even more. Scott Smith (A Simple Plan – the screenplay and the novel it was based on) wrote them both and had the sense to make the change for the movie. Who am I to tell him what to do with his own story?

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

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