April 7, 2008

Movie Review: The Ruins

That state of the modern horror film in America is not a good one. More often than not we get remakes of Asian horror films (three already this year: One Missed Call, The Eye, Shutter). When we do get an original film they generally pander to the PG-13 crowd (the rating is not bad, in itself, but there needs to be some effort made), the resulting films include the likes of The Reaping and Blood & Chocolate. This is not to say we don't get R rated horror, but even then there is not much to like, witness Turistas and Primeval. As you can tell, that is not a good track record. So, when I see a trailer like that for The Ruins, please forgive me for not getting all that excited. For all I could tell, it looked like a sequel to Turistas, just what we all need. Still, being the horror fan that I am, I felt obligated to take the potential bullet and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the horror landscape is not entirely bleak. We will occasionally get excellence in the form of The Descent, 28 Weeks Later, The Mist, and Mulberry Street. Now, you can add The Ruins to the list. It is far from perfect, but what it does, it does well, and while it may retain some of the usual horror cliches, it gives them enough of a tweak to make them feel fresh. This is also a case of advertising not doing the film any favors. I will admit to the fact of The Ruins being a tough sell, but the trailers and commercials could not make it look any more generic. Rest assured, it is not. In fact, the film is a rather grueling journey into survival horror that, while definitely hard to believe, it is definitely within the realm of believable possibility.

The movie opens in a fashion similar to Turistas, a group of young adults vacationing in an exotic location. Frolicking on the beach, drinking, and general stupid behavior. Can you blame them? In their shoes, you or I would probably be doing the same thing. You're on vacation! Have some fun, drink, party, and carry on like fools! During their fun, they meet another tourist to this Mexican resort, a German named Mathias (Across the Universe's Joe Anderson), who is planning a trip to an ancient Mayan temple to meet his brother, who ran off with an archaeologist. Liking the idea of some historical ruins that are not a tourist trap the four decide to join him on the trip. This is where their fates will forever be changed.

Once at the ruins, they are greeted by inhabitants of a nearby Mayan village. These men do not intend to let the group leave the grounds around the temple. Why? What is it about this place that even the bugs and birds do not land?

The Ruins is a film that is best discovered, and not read about in a review, especially if you, like me, have not read the novel. There is a great deal of suspense and terror to be rung out of this seemingly simple premise. To that end, I was reminded of Neil Marshall's The Descent. While the two films are vastly different in story, the level of suspense is comparable. Both of these films follow a rather simple story, yet what they are able to achieve in the writing is fantastic. The characters feel more like real people and the situation is just believable enough to really get the audience wrapped up in what was going on. Now, The Ruins does not quite reach the heights of The Descent, the effort is commendable.

These characters are faced with something completely foreign and there does not appear to be an easy way out. There are decisions that have to be made that will directly affect their immediate future, one wrong step and it is all over.

Credit to first time feature director Carter Smith for delivering a film that is seriously creepy, superbly suspenseful, and deliciously bloody. This movie made me cringe, it had me on the edge of my seat, and made me wonder just what was going to happen, not to mention if anyone would actually survive. All of this was done with a quick-paced ninety minutes. No time is wasted in introducing the characters, getting them to the temple, and letting their panic set in. It looks great, with plenty of subtle, and not so subtle, movement, and inventive use of sound. Overall, I am interested in just what Smith may have in store for us next.

Even more credit to writer Scott B. Smith, adapting the screenplay from his own novel. While I have not read the book, I bet it is a good one based upon what made it to the screen. Smith's screenplay is hampered at times by some poor dialogue, yet still feels very real. Now, we can argue until we're blue in the face over whether or not these people make some stupid decisions, but the fact remains that they are in an insane situation and there is no way to predict how you would respond to it. This means that you may be right in saying they do stupid things, but you cannot say with any degree of certainty that you would not make dumber choices. It is a screenplay that has guts to do what it does, not to mention what it calls for to show.

As for the acting? It is all fine. The cast is made up of up and comers with faces you may recognize from other projects, but not famous enough to take you out of their story. Jonathan Tucker (The Black Donnellys) plays Jeff, the de facto leader of the group, his girlfriend is ably blayed by Jena Malone (Into the Wild). Along for the ride are Shawn Ashmore (X-Men: The Last Stand), as Eric and his girlfriend Stacy, portrayed by Laura Ramsey (The Covenant). Along with the previously mentioned Joe Anderson, this core group of players do a good job of making you believe the unbelievable is happening to them.

Bottomline. The Ruins has nudity, blood, guts, gore, laughs, terror, suspense, and killer vines, what else do you need? Sure, the characters could possibly been fleshed out a bit more and some rough dialogue patches smoothed a little better, but that takes nothing away from what was accomplished here. It is the best horror film so far this year and definitely worth taking a look at.



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