Ruins, The (United States/Australia, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Ruins does what a good psychological horror movie should do: rely on tension rather than gore to achieve its aims. This bleak, edgy motion picture isn't concerned with appealing to the masses that flock to multiplexes to enjoy the spatterings of the latest serial slasher or the hollow weirdness of a PG-13 ghost story. Adapting from his own novel, Scott Smith stays true to the tone and intent, if not all the specifics, of the original story. The Ruins is about the dynamics that develop within a group of five as they face the inevitability of their own deaths at the top of a lost Mayan temple in the middle of a jungle.

The movie begins the way many generic horror films begin: with a group of four college students on Spring Break in Mexico. They are Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Amy (Jena Malone), and Amy's best friend, Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and her boyfriend, Eric (Shawn Ashmore). While lounging around the pool at their hotel, they meet Mathias (Joe Anderson). After getting to know them, Mathias invites them to accompany him on an expedition to a newly discovered pyramid. Jeff, Stacy, and Eric are all for it, but it takes some persuasion before Amy agrees. The group will soon wish they had heeded her misgivings. It takes a taxi ride into the middle of nowhere and a long hike along barely marked trails before they reach the temple. Once there, they are confronted by a man with a gun and another with a bow and arrow who make it unmistakably clear that they will kill any of them if they try to leave the temple. So, with little food and water, they find themselves trapped at the top of the pyramid - but limited supplies turn out to be the least of their problems.

Like 2006's The Descent and 2005's Wolf Creek, this brand of horror demands that the viewers identify with the characters. The protagonists cannot be seen as meat for the butcher's blade. In many horror films, the sole source of suspense is predicting the order in which characters will be led to the slaughter and which ones (if any) will survive. In The Ruins, the stakes are higher. This is a primal tale of survival and of the way the presence of impending death can warp the psyche. The enemy here is implacable, but it's not something as banal as a knife-wielding maniac.

The Ruins contains all the elements one has come to expect from R-rated horror extravaganzas. Director Carter Smith doesn't skimp on the gore - there's plenty of that, although the grimness with which some of it is presented may cause even veteran horror aficionados to flinch. There's also a nice bit of nudity from the attractive Laura Ramsey during the "getting to know the characters" intial act. Jena Malone keeps her clothing on, but she looks cute in a bikini. The lighthearted first 30 minutes of The Ruins stands in stark contrast to the darker material that is to follow. Once the group reaches the temple, there's not a lot to break the tension - not even the gallows humor beloved by some horror films.

The subject matter is within the range of the young cast, and all five members of the group exhibit the mental deterioration their characters endure, with some going farther over the edge than others. There's even a moral dilemma that the students must confront and, while the solution might seem easy for those of us sitting on the edge of our theater seats, the actors sell us the repugnance their alter-egos feel for choosing "the right thing."

The Ruins is no more a life affirming movie than the book is a feel-good page-turner. Smith understands suspense, though. His novel A Simple Plan was the source material for the Sam Raimi thriller. Although The Ruins is unquestionably horror, as the central conceit confirms, it belongs to a shrinking sub-category of the genre: adult films more concerned with generating tension and promoting viewer unease than reveling in an orgy of unrelenting violence. In order to appreciate The Ruins, one has to be a die-hard fan of horror or bloody thrillers. Those in that category will discover that The Ruins delivers the goods. It deserves better from its distributor than to have been hidden from critics and slipped quietly into theaters.

Ruins, The (United States/Australia, 2008)

Director: Carter Smith
Cast: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson
Screenplay: Scott Smith, based on his novel
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1