Ruins delivers chills and thrills

Given the apparent lack of faith Dreamworks felt about the critical reaction they might get for The Ruins, they decided not to screen the movie for the press until 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night, thus making (what they presumably felt would be mostly bad reviews), impossible to appear in Friday morning’s newspapers.
Perhaps they were using some clever reverse psychology, since if critics went to the film expecting to see another bad horror movie, and then actually saw something they might be mildly impressed with, they might be more forgiving in their eventual reviews.
If that is the case, I for one, found The Ruins to be quite a notch above the usual “Young couples on a vacation in paradise that goes to hell film.” It is really quite superior to movies like The Descent and Turistas which have preceded it, and possibly even influenced it.
Of course, that’s not really saying very much, given the low level of achievement reached by those films, so it would be fairer to say The Ruins is the best (and most frightening) carnivorous plant movie I’ve yet to see. But given the limited history of man-eating plant horror films, which includes “The Creeping Vine” segment of Dr. Terrors House of Horrors, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Voodoo Island with Boris Karloff, and Roger Corman’s Little Shoppe of Horrors, it’s still not a huge vote of confidence. But, that is appropriate, I think, as the movie is certainly no genre masterpiece. However it is quite an intelligent re-imaging of an already overworked area, that still manages to deliver some incredibly visceral shocks and tap into some basic primordial fears, which for horror fans, will make it quite a fun movie to watch.

And when you think of good horror movies, you invariably think of beautiful cinematography. Well, in The Ruins you certainly won’t be disappointed. Here we are treated to some absolutely exquisite camera work, mostly done on location, but not on the Yucatan Peninsula where the Mayan Ruins of the title are supposed to be located, but in Queensland, Australia, as photographed by Darius Khondji, who shot Seven and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. Khondji is an Iranian who grew up in France watching and loving sixties horror films. When you combine Khondji’s innate visual talent with that of first time director Carter Smith, who has an obvious eye for color and composition (he was previously a still photographer), the results are a very ravishing 91 minutes of gorgeous images.  Of course, these are combined with about ten minutes of truly horrendous visuals of carnage and mutilation, which are so intense, at one point I found myself averting my eyes from the screen!
Naturally, combining gruesome scenes with poetic photography is nothing new, and in fact it’s what many great horror films are all about. Just think of Eyes Without A Face, Black Sunday and Alien. But given the pictorial talent behind the camera here (which includes Lord of the Rings Oscar winning production designer, Grant Major) , it’s also nice to note that the author Scott Smith has managed to write a script that actually seems to give the characters some sensible motivations. In most of the films made in this area, the characters act like complete idiots, and often are played by actors whose thespian skills don’t surpass the intelligence of the people they are playing!
In this case, we get a movie where there’s a real reason why the characters are forced into a very dangerous situation, and they all seem to have believable motivations. Furthermore, the young and often inexperienced actors who usually play the heros and victims in this kind of film are often very unconvincing. Bad acting is often the major curse in trying to convince an audience about the unbelievable nature of the events they are watching.
However, in The Ruins, we get a fine ensemble cast of young actors, headed by Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey, who all deserve kudos for giving the film an intense and convincing portrait of American Turistas in peril. And as things keep getting grimmer and grimmer, Jonathan Tucker delivers a line that goes something like this: “Four Americans just don’t disappear – we’ll be found!” Well, perhaps not. Just recall what happened to Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek’s son when he goes to Mexico in Costa-Gavras’ Missing.
Verdict: While The Ruins is certainly no masterpiece, it is quite an enjoyable and very fun movie to watch.
THE RUINS (2008). Directed by Carter Smith. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel. Director of Photography: Darius Khondji, ASC. Production Desiger: Grant Major. Film Editor: Jeff Betancourt. Visual Effects Supervisor: Gregory L. McMurry, ASC. Music by Graeme Revell. Produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Jeremy Kramer & Chris Bender. Cast: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson, Sergio Calderon, Jesse Ramirez, Balder Moreno, Dimitri Baveas, Patricio Almedia Rodriguez.
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For another trip through THE RUINS, check out the review at Horror Movie a day.