The Ruins (2008) dir. Carter Smith
Starring: Jena Malone, Jonathan Tucker, Laura Ramsey, Shawn Ashmore
By Alan Bacchus
“The Ruins’ released last year earned a modest $17million domestically, but against its meager $8million budget it’s proven to be fine successes in low budget horror. Like its closest cousin “The Descent” it’s a near-perfect execution of the ‘Vacations-Gone-Bad’ subgenre of horror.
The film has a great pedigree – the literary source material is provided by Scott B. Smith, who wrote and scripted the great Sam Raimi drama “A Simple Plan”, Ben Stiller serves as producer, the great DOP Darius Khondji lenses the film and the leads are played by Jena Malone and Jonathan Tucker, a couple of talented former child actors, who always choose interesting projects. Add in Peter Jackson's production designer Grant Major and there’s some major creative talent behind this little horror film.
The story follows four good-looking college students enjoying the last days of their Mexican resort vacation. They meet a fun German dude, who brings them on an off-the-beaten-path trip to an unknown Mayan ruin. Despite warnings by the locals the tourists use their good ol’ American greenback to bribe their way into the uncharted jungle. When they arrive at the ruins, the locals, who only speak an aboriginal dialect, are immediately hostile. They are chased up the pyramid to the top for a siege-style standoff. Once on top they discover the locals are keeping them on the pyramid for a reason and where a much more sinister presents waits.
“The Ruins” would appear to have a bunch of hurdles to surmount – the location is the top of a pyramid, with very little location space to traverse; There’s a mineshaft at the top which creates some wonderfully suspenseful sequences, but there’s only so much one can do with a vertical space; Around the pyramid are the omnipresent locals, but there’s very little interaction or direct conflict against our heroes; And the ultimate enemy remains faceless.
But essential to the horror genre is the location, and in it’s great films claustrophobia is as important as character. Confined spaces helps isolate the characters from the outside world, amplifying their fear and forcing them to confront their assailants face to face. In “The Exorcist” it was Regan’s bedroom, in “The Evil Dead” it was the cabin, for “The Blair Witch Project” the woods confined its characters and “The Descent” used the dark and wet underground caves to create fear. In the “Ruins” Smith, Carter and company isolate their conflict and fear atop an ancient Mayan pyramid.
It’s a wonderful device – a lost pyramid, with a supernatural curse. It’s actually believable.
This is what makes “The Ruins” so effective. Like the first half of the “The Descent”, and even M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” it’s man vs. nature. The location not only isolates their characters against their enemies, in this case, the location is the enemy.
As consequence, character takes a back seat to these hooks and devices. It’s interesting to compare the adaptation of Smith’s first novel “A Simple Plan”, which puts it’s characters above its genre (in that case, a noir). In “The Ruins” genre trumps character. Though four good actors play the roles, they are indiscernible from each other and lack development of any kind. The horror genre forgives this oversight, but fans of “A Simple Plan” should change their expectations.
“The Ruins” should be separated from the pack of sub-standard horror films which bombard us. This one is the real deal. Enjoy.
“The Ruins” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment