Note: The Ruins is currently playing in second-run theaters. The DVD will be released July 8th, 2008.
The Ruins makes plants frightening, which is a cinematic first, and then it makes them gross, which is a less impressive cinematic first. But I guess that's still something. That Carter Smith achieves a sense of fright is nigh-unbelievable, since it takes a lot to make veggies a formidable foe. That he eventually retreats to gore gags just when things were getting interesting
well, that's a little depressing.
This is not to say The Ruins isn't worth your time. It may very well be, since it's as effective as a movie about evil Mayan vines could ever hope to be, and, really, how many of those are you going to see in your lifetime? Hell, after all the recent remakes of films that weren't original to begin with (Prom Night), we finally get something that's actually original. On that basis alone, The Ruins deserves your consideration.
The film tracks four twenty-somethings vacationing in Mexico, played ably by Shawn Ashmore, Jon Tucker, Jena Malone, and Laura Ramsey. The day before they're due back, the foursome meet up with a Greek visitor, Mathias (Joe Anderson), whose brother is heading an excavation at a Mayan temple. This is one of those treks into danger you may actually sympathize with, since visiting a pristine Mayan temple is much more enticing than, say, visiting that old abandoned amusement park where that psycho clown slaughtered and ate a bunch of sexy teenagers.
Still, problems arise. As soon as they reach the temple, they're surrounded by a crowd of angry Mayan villagers, who force the group up the steps of the temple. What makes the natives restless? Maybe the evil plants at the center of their forest, although that begs the question of why this particular village never packed up and moved to Cancun, which, by the way, is lovely this time of year.
I haven't read Smith's novel, but I suspect he devoted more time to the characters, seeing as how his A Simple Plan derived nearly all of its effect from us understanding the fears and desires of its four mains. There are hints of tension here as well, especially toward the beginning, but much of the film's runtime depends on the characters making discoveries and venturing into dark places.
Thankfully, Carter Smith makes those scenes work very well. There's a lot of talent in his sense of composition and pacing and ability to wring some real suspense from obligatory sequences where the heroines venture into the ruins. If nothing else, this is a lovely film, not least of which because the setting is so fresh and welcome to horror. Would that more horror flicks moved past dark hallways and butcher shop kitchens.
The evil vines and flowers that populate the film could easily have fallen into unintentional hilarity (try watching Day of the Triffids). What makes them work in The Ruins is Smith's attention to understatement, so that we slowly learn how the vines work, and what makes them so threatening. One awesome sequence has Jon Tucker angrily chucking flowers at the villagers, and one smacks a kid in the forehead. Uh-oh.
What lessens the impact is a discovery later in the film regarding the plants' ability to get inside its victims. It's a development sure to make you squirm, but squirming is about all it does. Ramsey's solution to the problem is certainly believable, but it also lowers the ambitions of the picture, which then settle down into a groove of mutilation and despair. Which would be effective, if it weren't preceded by superior moments of genuine suspense and sympathy.
The Ruins is a slight horror film, meant to do little more than creep us out for eighty minutes or so, and, on that level, it's a success. The mains don't make too many stupid choices, the threat feels genuine, and film looks great. Out of all the horror films of the year, this is one of the few that tries to stake out new territory. Like Cloverfield, it's a marginal success, but, hell, it's something. I expect a remake in 2010.