05 April 2008

The Ruins

The Ruins

I will never understand the decisions made by the folks in the movie studios' marketing departments. For example, about three years ago I attended a press screening of the Uwe Boll atrocity Alone in the Dark. (I hope by now someone has told poor Tara Reid it's not pronounced New-FOUND-land.) Advertising for blood-and-gore fests like the Saw and Hostel movies assaults movie-goers on all levels. But here we are with a horror movie that aims to do a little more and DreamWorks has dumped it into theaters with barely a whisper.

The Ruins comes from the mind of Scott Smith, the Oscar-nominated writer of the Sam Raimi film A Simple Plan (1998). He again adapts his own novel for the screen, so he knows the story and characters well. More importantly, he cares about the characters and wants us to do the same. Instead of treating them as pieces of meat to be slaughtered in disturbingly creative ways, he forces us to identify with them. We know they all won't make it out alive, but we hope they will. When someone dies, it has meaning.

Smith sets the stage like so many other recent horror movies. Our characters—couples Amy (Into the Wild's Jena Malone) and Jeff (Jonathan Tucker of the short-lived NBC series The Black Donnellys), and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore, "Iceman" from the X-Men movies)—are college students enjoying a relaxing holiday in Mexico. Amy is nervous about Jeff's impending departure for med school, but apart from that, all is right in their world. While lounging poolside, they meet the friendly German Mathias (Joe Anderson), who invites them to an archaeological site at a Mayan temple only recently discovered. The next morning (the last day of their vacation, naturally), Jeff, Eric and Stacy are gung-ho for the expedition. Amy, nursing a nasty hangover, takes some convincing. But soon they're off, riding in the back of a rickety old taxi, then hiking through the jungle on a barely-marked trail.

An old man with a gun (Sergio Calderon) and many other men with bows and arrows greet the tourists when they arrive at the ruined temple. The mysterious people speak, but it isn't in English or Spanish. Could they be inhabitants of the Mayan village rumored to be nearby? I thought the Mayans were extinct? someone asks. Whoever they are, they aren't friendly and they aren't about to let anyone leave, which they make known with deadly force. With nowhere else to go, the tourists flee to the top of the temple. An abandoned campsite awaits them. Where are the archaeologists? The Mayans set up a camp of their own at the base of the temple, effectively laying siege to it. A ringing cell phone—curious because Eric can't get a signal on his phone—lures Mathias inside the ruins. When that doesn't go so well, Amy and Stacy follow.

The believably resourceful Jeff takes charge and insists they stay put. The others, Eric in particular, want to make a break for it, take their chances with the Mayans. Before leaving, Mathias drew a map for his Greek friends. Help is on the way, Jeff assures them. But the danger is not only at the bottom of the temple.

The Ruins earns its R rating by being gory when it needs to be, but the real horror comes from the tension that refuses to relent. The movie is about survival, and as the tourists are held virtually as prisoners atop the temple, starvation is as great a threat as the men below. Drama comes from little things, such as how much water they should be allowed to drink at one time.

The young actors get the rare chance to do some real acting in a horror movie. Beyond the Jeff/Amy med school issue, the characters are thinly drawn in the first act. In most horror movies, that would hold true throughout the entire running time. The Ruins, however, is largely character driven and the extreme, life-and-death situation gradually reveals all we need to know about them. Acting under these conditions—covered in blood and dirt, screaming in terror—can't be easy. Malone, Tucker, Ramsey, Ashmore and Anderson deserve as much credit as Smith for the movie's success.

The director, Carter Smith (no relation to the writer), making his feature debut, has a lot of talent on his side of the camera, including cinematographer Darious Khondji (Se7en, an Oscar nominee for Evita) and production designer Grant Major (an Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings). So the film looks spectacular, enhancing the believability (or at least the willing suspension of disbelief) even more. Even the special effects, which easily could have come across as cheesy in a Sci-Fi-channel-Saturday-night-movie sort of way, make the grade.

If you don't have the stomach for horror movies, I hesitate to recommend The Ruins. It's good but maybe not that good, if that makes any sense. It is, however, a strong addition to a genre filled with movies that rarely receive the care that obviously went into its making. It's easily the best horror movie since The Descent (2006).

(Rated R for strong violence and gruesome images, language, some sexuality and nudity. 91 minutes.)

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