Jonathan Tucker as Jeff
Jena Malone as Amy
Shawn Ashmore as Eric
Laura Ramsey as Stacy
Joe Anderson as Mathias
Directed by Carter Smith
In his 2006 novel "The Ruins," writer Scott Smith demonstrated that good ol' David Cronenberg-esque bodily invasion can still give you the shivers and that there's still plenty of frights left to mine not involving serial killers, hellish traps, ghoulies and ghosties. He did so through a blunt, brisk prose festering with paranoia and flayed flesh. It distilled horror right down to the grisly basics, furthermore, featured a vivid quartet of fully-realized characters - whether you liked them or not is a different story. Lest we forget Stephen King dribbled kudos all over the book's jacket art ("The Ruins is your basic long scream of horror."). In essence: This baby was primed for the big screen the minute its author set his words to paper. Two years and a production deal with Ben Stiller's Red Hour Films later, the story has snaked its way onto celluloid and, with it, no bone goes unexposed, no drop blood is wasted and none of Smith's original gruesome set pieces are left behind. "The Ruins," a painstakingly faithful adaptation, adds a few wicked surprises and is every bit packed with the concentrated dread that made your skin crawl in the novel.
Veering off-track momentarily - for a scene not in the book - "The Ruins" begins with a young, dirtied woman scared out of her gourd in a darkened cave. Various attempts at calling for rescue via her cell phone are fruitless and, as quickly as we met her, she's violently torn away by something in the dark. It's a modest and jarring introduction to kick-start the film's events, but nowhere on par with the creep-out factor that follows with...
Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacy - two American couples vacationing in Mexico. Jeff (played with Boy Scout zeal by Tucker) is the headstrong medical student-to-be. He's bidding adieu to his weak-willed, sort've-a-wet rag girlfriend Amy (Malone) as he leaves her behind for college. As a result her head is obviously mixed up about his decision and the rift in their relationship that will come with it. Eric and Stacy (Ashmore and Ramsey, respectively) are a less complicated, sexually frivolous pair touting less baggage.
Lounging poolside one day, they meet German tourist Mathias (Anderson, sporting a somewhat believable accent) who tells them he'll be joining his brother at a local archeological dig. He offers them the opportunity to tag along, they accept, they party and after a booze-filled night laden with slight temptation, they set off into the jungle. Scott Smith - adapting his own novel, as he had done on Sam Raimi's '98 effort "A Simple Plan" - cuts corners in the character set-up, only allowing any decent quality time with our couples while they separately prepare to leave in their respective hotel rooms. And director Carter Smith dutifully follows, maintaining credibility in his cast and keeping the pace moving along at a vigorous clip.
Ignoring warnings from the locals, our leads - joined by Pablo, a Greek vacationer who has abandoned his pals back at the resort to check out the titular location as well - eventually arrive at the dig, a towering Mayan temple blanketed with vine. Unfriendly, weapon-toting villagers greet them there and, eventually, force the traveling troupe, sans one member, to the top of the temple. There, Jeff, Amy, Eric, Stacy and Mathias soon realize there is no getting off this scenic spot alive. The villagers won't let them leave and it is readily apparent the vine around them has a life of its own. And it craves succulent red meat like Audrey II needed a taste of Steve Martin. Yes, sir, you read that right, this native plant life feasts on human flesh! Not only that, but it has a few wily tricks up its sleeve to capture its prey. With this turn of the narrative screw, a struggle for survival soon succumbs to a man versus nature tussle filled shocking revelations.
And then things get really f'ed up.
Like its source material, "The Ruins" is outlandishly disgusting. Carter turns his lens towards amputation, blown-out brains, child violence (something new not in the book), tendril assault and self surgery with an unflinching, frank approach. And accomplished in broad daylight, the violence takes on an uncomforting stark realism. This is bolstered by the masterful photography of Darius Khondji, here trading in the doom 'n gloom atmosphere of "Se7en" for a more conspicuous, brazen approach. However, with Carter, it's through his expert molding of shadows where his work makes the most out one scene which finds Amy and Stacy descending into the bowels of the temple...where the abundant vine makes morbid use out one of its previous victims.
How this fearsome foliage devours its food is one of the many questions Carter and Scott leave for the viewer to ponder. "The Ruins" isn't so much about answers as it is about the deconstruction of Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacy's relationships. Like John Carpenter's "The Thing," or to another degree, Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever," it peels back the skin on human nature and explores its fight or flight survival instinct. To an extent, Carter and company relay the group's breakdown efficiently - whether its Stacy's fear that the vine is crawling deep within her body or the occasional power struggle hinted at between Jeff and Eric. The only thing lacking is the sense of urgency. There's something lost in the translation from book to screen.
Carter balances practical and CG vine (mostly the former) judiciously - so don't fret, it doesn't look ridiculous. If you're familiar with the book, and the vine's ability to "mimic" organisms, I'll tell you Carter actually made it work. On the page, I found the device a tad absurd. But I'm a believer now. And Graeme Revell lends the film an ominous growling, synth-y (I believe) soundscape that's more design/FX than score.
Despite a slight alteration to its still bleak conclusion, this writer is happy to report "The Ruins" is a nightmarish spectacle with a fair amount of unpredictability to make you squirm uneasily. It's a true original treat for horror fans sluggishly wading through derivative remake after remake. Not only that, but it will make you reconsider eating that healthy plate of greens you had planned for lunch. One of the first cool theatrical horror films of '08, no doubt.