16 April 2008

The Ruins

Directed by: Carter Smith
Written by: Scott B. Smith
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

The Ruins ought to satisfy anyone (i.e. me, a few nights ago) jonesing for a horror movie, but that’s not to condone it; while commendably maintaining a palpable sense of discomfort, the filmmakers forget the most important thing in scary movies, the thing that made recent entries like Wolf Creek or Cloverfield so effective: recognizable and sympathetic characters.

An Anton Yelchin look-and-sound-a-like (Jonathan Tucker) and his girlfriend, a Jena Malone look-a-like—oh wait, that is Jena Malone—play turistas on holiday down Mexico way, along with their equally vanilla pals, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey. On the ill-considered advice of a German tourist—with the Hostel films, the bad advice of Europeans is becoming a horror movie convention—they travel to the off-the-beaten-path (in trailerspeak) ruins of a Mayan temple. Once there, savage natives start shouting at them—and not, to the dismay of our pidgin-tongued heroes, in Spanish—and drive them to the top of the temple, where they remain captive for the rest of the movie.

As horror movie filmmakers go, the Smiths display a measure of chutzpah: they not only lock their film into one location—not easy to pull off—but they keep nearly all of their characters alive almost to the very end, refusing to indulge the built-in demographic’s splatterlust. (Though at times the film is a bit gruesomely procedural, obligingly slipping into torture porn along the lines of “we’ll break your bones with a rock, then cut your legs off with a hunting knife and cauterize the stumps with a hot frying pan.”) The tense and terse storytelling—no extraneous subplots, no wasted time—that lets the filmmakers get away with the shortage of settings leaves little space for character, though. Tucker in particular, a stony C-lister, is a major drag on the film, offering, for example, little verisimilitude to the overt expository dialogue, eg. “each of us needs half a gallon of water a day to survive”; he certainly doesn’t possess the ability to create a credible character. (Malone, on the other hand, does a fine job; I don’t know whether to celebrate her for raising this film up a notch or scold her for wasting her time.) The filmmakers still manage to keep the film bopping along; unfortunately, however, they run out of steam and rush through the requisite slaughter/denouement, as though another group of filmmakers needed to use the set.

We are left of course with our last woman standing, although Smith defies convention a bit by making her anything but virtuous and sober; whereas horror films usually function as a means of punishing promiscuous teens, our redeemed survivor here is a heavy drinker (she spends the film hungover) and an infidelious girlfriend. The filmmakers are up to something other than giving our arrogant American heroes their comeuppance. (“This doesn’t happen!” Tucker tells his friends. “Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!”) Our straight man, a med student, sacrifices himself for the team; the Smiths display a conservative bent here, showing little pity or clemency for the resident man of science and his complicit pals. (They gleefully offer a close-up of his dead body.) In The Ruins, the Native American savages, not without a method to their madness, serve only as secondary villains; our protagonists’ central nemesis is Mother Earth and its carnivorous vegetation. (Whose leaves bear a conspicuous resemblance to those of the marijuana plant.) The Ruins makes a point to remind us, along with every hurricane season, that nature isn’t exactly our friend. But the marketing team took it one step further. “Terror has evolved,” the movie poster’s tagline reads. Apparently our greatest enemy is evolution itself.

Watch the (red band) trailer:

No comments: