by Mel Valentin
When it comes to the horror genre and film critics, movie studios either skip screenings altogether or when they do have advance screenings, they limit them to the Thursday before a film’s official release. The less confidence a studio has in a film, the more they want to limit negative reviews (understandable from a business perspective, of course), the latter the actual screening. For "The Ruins," an adaptation of Scott B. Smith’s best-selling novel (Scott also wrote the screenplay) directed by Carter Smith, Paramount pushed the screening back to 10:00 p.m. Lack of confidence, however, wasn’t entirely necessary. While "The Ruins" starts off slow, drags in the middle, and alters the source novel significantly while limiting characterization to the bare minimum, it’s not a half-bad take on the survival horror sub-genre, heavy on squirm-inducing gore and a decent number of genuine scares. What more can a horror fan want?The Ruins follows four, interchangeable twenty-nothings, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), his girlfriend, Amy (Jena Malone), her best friend, Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and Stacey’s boyfriend, Eric (Shawn Ashmore), as they enjoy the last days of their vacation in Cancún, Mexico. Bored with too much sun and too much water, the four friends take up a German tourist, Mathias (Joe Anderson), on his offer to lead them to an archeological dig in a remote part of the jungle. Mathias doesn’t just want to play tourist guide, he wants to find his brother, who disappeared recently, but left him a map. Another tourist, Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), a Greek on vacation in Mexico with his friends, joins the group as they leave civilization behind and head for the interior.
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...Or not..."
After hitching a ride on a pick-up truck, the group follows Mathias’ map. Stumbling through the jungle, the group encounters a local boy and girl, both members of a nearby Mayan village. Neither speaks Spanish and run away as the group finds a hidden trail. At the end of the trail, they find an ancient Mayan pyramid covered in green vines and red flowers. Before they can check out the ruins, the members of the village arrive, brandishing guns and bows. Unable to communicate, the meeting between the tourists and the locals turn violent. With nowhere to turn or hide, the group rushes up the pyramid, only to realize the locals have set up a perimeter around the ruins. No one gets in or out (not alive, anyway).
In the tradition of Night of the Living Dead (a survival horror classic if there ever was one), The Ruins shifts focus from the external threat, e.g. the locals quarantining them, the ancient evil waiting to feast on the not-so-merry band of Western tourists, to the conflict within the group between staying and hoping for rescue (which may never arrive) to attempting escape (which brings with it serious injury or death). It’s when the conflict threatens to splinter the group, long after we’ve been introduced to a bland cast of characters distinguishable by their physical appearances (and not much else) that The Ruins finally begins to pick up momentum, just in time for several gore- and blood-filled set pieces, each as solidly choreographed and executed as the last. Here’s a hint: you’ll never think of double amputation in the same way again (assuming, of course, you thought of it in the first place).
For all the genuine scares Carter Smith and his collaborators came up with to keep moviegoers covering their faces with their jackets or sweaters, The Ruins fails where most horror flicks fail, in initially creating characters we care about on more than a marginal level. We learn almost nothing about the characters’ backstories (Jeff’s in medical school and that’s about it) and what we do learn is from the characters’ actions. Jeff is the thoughtful man of action, the designated hero; Eric is the secondary hero arguing for a “let’s escape while we can” plan, Stacy is blonde (and gratuitously naked in one scene), and Amy’s the needy, whiny type who, surprise, surprise, musters just enough courage to (maybe) see herself through to the end credits.What we don’t get from the characters applies almost equally well to a mid-film longueur and, more egregiously, an abrupt, unsatisfying ending (one different from the novel), complete with a a “it’s not over yet” set-up for a potential sequel that suggests the two Smiths, Carter and Scott, or the movie studio couldn’t decide on an ending either. Maybe there’s an alternate ending out there, somewhere. If there is, maybe we’ll get a chance to see it on DVD. For now, though, we’ll have to settle for a solidly produced survival horror flick that manages to deliver on its promise to scare audiences at regular intervals. That might not sound like a lot, but for horror fans accustomed to one-too-many scare-free horror flicks, it’ll come as a welcome surprise.
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originally posted: 04/04/08 05:22:16