bestselling 2006 novel THE RUINS seems unlikely material for a
movie. The book is an effective but excessively drawn-out
account of American teenagers trapped in the ruins of a Mayan
village who get menaced by killer vines–yes, that pretty much
sums up the entire book. Yet Smith, who scripted the screen
translation for DreamWorks, did an excellent job adapting his
story. I believe the film, co-produced by Ben Stiller (yes, that
Ben Stiller) and directed by first-timer Carter Smith, is
superior to the novel in many respects.
THE RUINS hit US screens in April of 2008, and despite
receiving generally solid reviews did disappointingly little
business. Here then is a cult waiting to be born.
Four college pukes–two girls and their boyfriends–are
vacationing in Mexico with their Greek buddy Pablo. A day before
they’re scheduled to travel back to the US they meet Mathias, a
fellow traveler. Mathias, in search of his missing brother,
leads the kids to the ruins of a Mayan village. It seems a
harmless enough jaunt, but Mathias is shot at the base of the
ruins by gun-wielding locals who for some reason surround the
area and won’t allow anyone to leave. Thus the kids are
effectively trapped in the ruins with limited food and water.
Disaster strikes almost immediately, when the ringing of a
cell phone is heard emitting from a well atop the ruins. Pablo
elects to ascend the rope to the bottom of the well, but the
rope snaps as he’s making his way down. One of the girls, the
airheaded Stacy, rides what’s left of the rope downward to
retrieve the severely injured Pablo, and ends up gashing her
The cut proves deadly as later that night vines burrow their
way into the wound. Stacy and her BF manage to pull the plants
out, but she’s convinced the things are growing inside her body.
Pablo, having been hauled out of the well on a makeshift
stretcher, is also menaced by the living vines, which appear to
be attracted to dying and/or wounded people.
The next morning Jeff, a med school attendee, decides he’ll
have to amputate Pablo’s gangrenous legs. The others reluctantly
go along with this, leading to a nasty leg breaking and
subsequent slicing. We also learn the mysterious vines have
flowers that can imitate sounds, including human speech. And
Stacy is getting more and more freaked out about the plants she
believes are growing under her skin–when she begins slicing at
herself with a sharp knife, watch out!
There are some rough scenes in this film that push the R
rating to its limits, including a nasty amputation sequence that
rivals the infamous leg cutting in
THE BEGUILED and an extremely
gory bout of self mutilation. But the film works because of its
skilled, confident filmmaking and top-notch special effects.
Like many horror movies past and present, the story is a
gradually building one. This is to say that the first half is
slow and uneventful, but hang on! Scott Smith has admirably
condensed his (too)lengthy novel for the screen, leaving in all
the good parts while transposing select characters and
events–most notably the self mutilation, which is performed by a
different character than that in the book, with (in my view)
more effective results.
All the actors are exceptional, particularly former teen
movie queen Jena Malone (BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, DONNIE DARKO,
etc.) as the ersatz heroine, and Jonathan Tucker as the med
student whose training comes in all too handily. But the film’s
most effective performance is delivered by Laura Ramsey as the
bubble-brained Stacy, whose torment at the hands of the monster
vines is the most harrowing of all.
There is one misstep, and that’s the somewhat-optimistic
wrap-up. It’s different from the book’s bleak ending, and feels
like a perfunctory nod to the dictates of cynical studio execs.
Otherwise, though, this is superlative horror, an intelligent
and thought-provoking but still down-and-dirty exercise in
unrelenting grit and grue.
Director: Carter Smith
Producers: Chris Bender, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeremy Kramer, Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Scott B. Smith (Based on a novel by Scott B. Smith)
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Editing: Jeff Betancourt
Cast: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey, Shawn Ashmore, Joe Anderson, Sergio Calderon, Jesse Ramirez, Balder Moreno, Dimitri Baveas, Patricio Almeida Ramirez, Mario Jurado, Luis Ramos