Director: Carter Smith
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson
Running Time: 90 min.
When Dreamworks dumped Carter Smith’s debut feature The Ruins into theaters with little fan fare this past April it became the latest horror film joined the scrap pile of other titles not screened in advance for critics. Even if the movie were awful this is a dumb move because you always want people talking about your picture. Even if some that talk is negative, at least its talk. But the horror genre has long been regarded as the bastard child of Hollywood and unfortunately that's a reputation for which horror filmmakers must share at least some of the blame. Not all, but some. Let’s be honest: There are a lot of crappy horror movies out there and the amount that go directly to DVD are alarmingly high. Still, I do have to wonder if a true horror classic came along whether critics would even acknowledge it. I’m guessing not.
Despite reading some positive reviews for The Ruins I still had little to no interest in seeing it. Can you blame me? Actors that look like they were found in a CW casting call, a lame title and a final theatrical poster that blatantly ripped off 2006’s The Descent. The only hint of artistic credibility this had was that it’s based on a novel by acclaimed author Scott B. Smith (who wrote A Simple Plan), but that detail was hidden. It turns out all of this is just poor marketing and nothing more. It isn't at all a reflection on the quality of the film.
Once the opening credits role reveals itself to not even be a horror movie, but instead a taut, intelligent psychological thriller that also doubles as a realistic tale of survival. If it is considered a horror film then it’s the best kind. It’s the kind that relies on character and situation and realizes that unless you care about the people the film has no reason to even exist. I not only cared about every single character in this, I genuinely liked them and found no joy in seeing them go through the ordeal they did. They didn’t deserve it, which is a key ingredient that’s been missing from many horror films in recent years.
By focusing on character the movie avoids nearly all the pitfalls of the genre and it's also a good example of how an R rating can make all the difference in the world. In this case it allows the movie to take that extra step in adding a degree of realism that’s frightening and graphic, yet never feels gratuitous. There is some (brief but impressive) nudity that’s gratuitous but you know I’d never complain about that. The movie also has balls of steel and is true to its bleak vision right until the final scene.
The Descent will be the obvious point of comparison but this film, while not as scary, may be superior on an intellectual level. I definitely cared about the characters more since it contains five performances that are abnormally above par for this type of film. I’d even go so far as to say one of them transcends the genre it’s in and goes above and beyond the call of duty. I realize that so far it hasn’t been that strong a year for films, but in a way that’s nice because a movie like this that most would have ignored can get some attention. It’s definitely earned it.
In any horror film these days you have the characters pegged right from the get-go. The jock. The slut. The nerd. The virgin. If you enjoy spending time with people like this then The Ruins probably isn’t your film because none of them show up here. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and his girlfreind, Amy (Jena Malone) are on Spring Break in Cancun along with her best friend, Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and her boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore) Lounging poolside, they meet a charming German tourist named Mathias (Across The Universe’s Joe Anderson) who convinces them to go on an unsafe excursion to a mysterious Myan pyramid. And that right there could have been the set-up for an incredibly dumb movie, a movie so dumb that it could have easily topped many year-end worst lists. But the beauty of this film is that every potential creative problem is avoided as if the filmmakers studied the worst in horror/thrillers and committed themselves to doing the opposite.
The first thing to jump out at me was how beautifully shot it was by cinematographer Darius Khondji. Unlike other movies in this genre, The Ruins is shot mostly in daylight rather than darkness and the best way to describe it is when you’re walking through Best Buy and you see one of those super HD screens with an image so crisp it’s better than actually being there. There’s also an obvious difference in how the characters are presented here as opposed to other lesser horror movies. Besides none of them fitting any stereotype, they don’t even seem like friends or look like they’re enjoying each other’s company. They get along just fine, but there’s tension. The dichotomy within the group is fascinating, especially between the mismatched Jeff and Amy, how you wonder ever got together.
We don’t learn much about anyone early but we’re effectively pulled in and what these characters are really all about is fully revealed in the ordeal they go through together. And what an ordeal it is. I fully expected a Hostel-like situation with naive traveling tourists being trapped by a foreigner. It didn’t happen. I expected the film to degenerate into the supernatural when they reached the Mayan ruins. That didn’t happen either. What does happen I won’t reveal, not because I don’t want to spoil anything, but because you’d laugh. In conceit it probably isn’t any less ridiculous than, say, the events in The Happening, but there’s a HUGE difference in tone and approach. As presented by Carter Smith the situation is terrifying because he relies on the psychology of the characters to tell the story. In horror, the true enemy is always ourselves.
If you’ve ever seen the terrible 80’s horror sequel, Creepshow 2, the one bright spot in the film was a brilliant segment titled “The Raft.” The Ruins very closely resembles that segment on a bigger budget, its narrative deepened and expanded for maximum terror. It has nothing in common with films like The Hills Have Eyes 2 as some would have you believe, but instead comes closer to something like Werner Herzog’s survivalist drama Rescue Dawn, where characters are first battling the elements to survive, then each other. There’s even a culture clash and communication gap with the Mayans that isn’t too far off from the situation in that film.
What helps ground the situation in this reality and prevents it from going overboard are the performances, the most impressive of which is delivered by Jena Malone. This isn’t your typical “scream queen” role. When the film opens we think we have Amy pegged as a slut, then as it progresses we think she may actually be a brainiac, then the focus shifts in such a way that we suspect Amy is just a complete hysterical idiot. Or maybe she’s all of those things, or none of them. Whatever she is, Malone doesn’t box her in and gives a multi-dimensional portrayal.
You could argue this entire ordeal is Amy’s fault, but Malone somehow manages to actually create sympathy for a character that couldn’t possibly make worse decisions. She's done strong supporting work for years (most recently in Into The Wild) but this may be the best performance I’ve seen from her.
Laura Ramsey doesn’t lag too far behind Malone as Stacy and late in the film she has to do some heavy lifting emotionally and proves herself up for it. You’d think her name is more likely to be associated with direct-to-DVD cheapies than anything of substantial quality but she really delivers here. Of the five it’s probably the most physically grueling role, right next to Joe Anderson’s. He’s involved in a scene so brutal and graphic I actually had to look away. Jonathan Tucker made for a surprisingly capable leading man and after seeing him in this I’d be ready to buy him in more serious roles instead of the goofy low budget comedies he's frequented. Shawn Ashmore probably has the least to do of everybody but it makes no difference since I was too distracted by his eerie resemblance to the late Brian Pillman to even notice what kind of a performance he gave. But this movie belongs to the girls all the way.
Oddly enough, Ben Stiller co-produced this and it’s probably one of the better creative contributions in the past couple of years (although I haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet). That’s why it’s disappointing this was marketed so poorly and never given a chance. Looking at the posters and the commercials you’d think this could be shown as a double feature with the remake of Prom Night. I wouldn’t even classify this as a horror film and it’s times like this where I wish the actual word “horror” would just go away because I think it actually makes people avoid the movie. But if we have to go there, The Descent is the movie to which it comes closest, and that’s never more clear than at the end.
The film only steps wrong twice. An opening scene at the beginning that doesn’t work, and a second awful choice that isn’t technically in the movie but comes over the final credits when a ridiculous fake-metal song is played. It completely clashes with the overall tone of the picture and was a decision clearly based on test screenings. More likely the result of a focus group than a filmmaker. Actually, the final scene feels a little fiddled with, much like The Descent, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there are a bunch of superior alternate endings out there. These are minor quibbles though in the broad scheme of things. I guess there's something to be said for a novelist adapting his own work for the screen because Scott B. Smith's script could have been dumbed down in many ways, but wasn't. I went into The Ruins with the lowest of expectations, and an hour and a half later I was reminded what quality horror is supposed to be.