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THE RUINS

Most US moviegoers ignored this slickly mounted, hard-R rated big studio product. Their loss, methinks, as THE RUINS is the creepiest, ickiest, most intense horror movie I’ve encountered in some time.

The Package
   
Scott Smith’s 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.

The Story
    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 leg.
    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!

The Direction
    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.

Vital Statistics

THE RUINS
DreamWorks SKG

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


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