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Ruins, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/17/08 18:07:52

"Little Temple of Horrors."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s tempting to compare “The Ruins” with “The Descent.” Both horror tales are far more character-driven than the typical genre entry, and both spend a large amount of time detailing realistic survival scenarios before finally unleashing the supernatural elements.

The similarities end there, except for the key fact that both are expertly made chillers. “The Descent” is a modern masterpiece, and while “The Ruins” is a lesser picture, it still excels at what it does, namely: provide white-knuckle terror with a compelling conviction that’s too often missing from horror flicks. It may be just another white-kids-get-killed chiller, but it’s a solidly made white-kids-get-killed chiller; nothing new, yet expertly put together.

The film is adapted by the acclaimed novel by Scott Smith, who also wrote the screenplay. As he was with his adaptation of “A Simple Plan,” Smith seems very comfortable making major changes to the source material, figuring out where the core story can bend to fit into a new medium.

Our tale finds two college-aged couples - Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Amy (Jena Malone), Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) - enjoying the final days of their Cancun vacation. Jeff, an uptight med student, laments that the foursome have stayed at the beachside hotel for parties instead of exploring the ancient culture nearby, so when they meet German hunk Mathias (Joe Anderson), Jeff eagerly accepts his offer of visiting an “off-the-map” Mayan temple where Mathias knows of an archeological dig. It’ll be a fun adventure.

A bus ride, taxi ride, and long jungle hike later, they finally reach the vine-covered ancient pyramid, only to discover empty tents and no people. That’s when a gang of villagers show up with guns, refusing to let them leave. The vacationers now have nowhere to go but up, where they must uncover what happened to the archeologists while also figuring out how to survive with little food or water. Oh, and those vines? They just might be alive. And hungry.

On a story level, “The Ruins” is rather simple - there’s little to differentiate the characters (they’re best remembered as The Uptight Guy, The Laidback Guy, The German Guy, The Blonde Girl, and Jena Malone; even the script gives up, insisting on simply calling a set of Greek side characters “The Greeks”) - which makes it surprising to discover that the film actually contains some quality character work. As a “what would you do?” scenario, we get to watch these friends collapse under pressure, each passing hour bringing more horror. The cast does a fine job bringing the more psychological aspects of the tale to life, as the threats become just as internal as they are external. The stress of the moment is enough to cause anyone to break down, and on top of that, the vines have a way of getting into your head (both figuratively and - eww! - literally).

Director Carter Smith, a former fashion photographer making his feature debut, uses his keen eye to create truly disturbing visuals, the sort of thing you only half-see because you’re watching through your fingers. The setting alone looks gorgeous (a shame that these characters never pause to soak in the jungle scenery; kudos also go to veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji), the studio footage blending seamlessly with the effects work and location shots (filmed in, of all places, Australia). But Smith’s eye is best used when aimed at the grotesque body horror that follows. “The Ruins” is a nightmare to those who can’t handle horrible things happening to the flesh, and Smith knows it. Very bad things happen to legs, arms, bellies, backs, heads, the works. When Jeff (The Uptight Guy) reminds us that he’s in med school, that’s just a chance for the movie to show us on-the-fly surgery, vital to survival - and to the film’s gross-out factor.

And yet Smith never takes us into Eli Roth territory. There’s no glorification of the violence, no long, sweaty shots of the mutilations. Smith keeps his camera at a distance for most shots, and the movie refuses to savor the grotesque. And in a way, keeping the violence at bay only increases the horror; when we get but a glimpse of what’s become of one character’s legs, our imaginations can fill in the rest.

When the camera does go in close, Smith is insistent we keep the psychological edge. One character resorts to some self-surgery with a hunting knife, and while it’s definitely squeamy, what with all that cutting and slicing and bloodletting, the real terror comes from the character’s state of mind. This is a person who’s been driven to insanity by the vines. Isn’t losing one’s mind more frightening than losing some blood?

“The Ruins” works on both levels, visceral and cerebral, and it’s a sense of storytelling economy that makes the dread work. This is a film that gets to the chills fast and stays there long, ratcheting the tension with each scene until you’re left only half-seeing the darn thing, watching it through your fingers.

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