Friday, July 11, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Ruins (2008)

The choking, encroaching terror of the low budget The Ruins (2008) is all about two relevant War on Terror Age issues: American narcissism and American xenophobia. Which, I suppose, are actually two heads of the same fire-breathing dragon.

Based on the gripping 2006 novel by Scott Smith (which was given to me by a film teacher here in Charlotte), The Ruins concerns four robust American tourists in their early twenties who unwisely stray from the beaten path on a vacation to Mexico and end up as tasty fodder for malevolent, possibly sentient carnivorous vines in an out-of-the-way Mayan temple.

They can't escape this "wrong turn" locale because heavily-armed locals with itchy trigger fingers have staked out a camp below the ruins, salted the earth around the temple, and "quarantined" the strangers so the infected folks cannot carry the unstoppable weeds out of the jungle (where the murderous plants would, likely, take over the world in no time...).

The narcissism comes into play when the vapid American youngsters (played well by Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashemore and Laura Ramsey) choose to stay atop the questionable sanctuary of the temple rather than engage the locals based purely on their iron-clad belief that "Four Americans on vacation don't just disappear." Haven't they seen Hostel?

But seriously, they expect technology (like cell phones...) to save them. They expect rescuers either from the local hotel or airline to come for them in a scant day's time when the obvious though unpleasant answer to their dilemma (and one vindicated in the film's remarkable climax) is that one of the Americans must make a sacrifice for the common good; for the others to survive. Despite Hurricane Katrina and the bungled rescue efforts there, this truth seems like a truly foreign concept to the indulged, entitled twenty-something characters of The Ruins, save for Tucker's doctor-in-training, Jeff. Early on, for instance, when Amy (Malone) is asked to help the injured guide, a German hunk named Mathias (Joe Anderson), she blanches, showing little empathy for the injured man. She finally helps, but only grudgingly. Twelve hours earlier, she was practically begging the same man (Mathias) to bone her.

The xenophobia suffuses the film in terms of both narrative and location. This is one of those "Americans Abroad" horror films (like Beyond Evil [1980] or The House Where Evil Dwells [1982]), in which arrogant Westerners blunder into a frightening situation with no understanding of local customs or even the local language.

True to this genre convention, "the foreigners" in The Ruins are depicted as physically ugly (particularly the brutal leader) and of the "shoot first, ask questions later" variety. They can't be negotiated with, and the leader even kills one of his own (a child...) when there is the slightest danger of infection. The overt brutality, the lack of intelligent dialogue and the apparent lack of morality (the murder of children...) initially makes these characters seem more frightening and primitive than the entitled tech-savvy Americans. One of the facets I appreciate most about the film, however, is that -- though undeniably brutal -- these locals actually serve a higher moral purpose; one beyond the sight of the callow tourists. They are saving their country (and likely our country...) from the monstrous, spreading vines, but the "selfish" tourists, unable to see past their own miserable predicament, don't see or understand the danger they could pose by carrying back the plants to other communities. And thus, we've come full circle: from narcissism to xenophobia and back to narcissism.

Shot for eight million dollars, which today constitutes an extremely low budget, The Ruins is a film that - like the monster weeds themselves - grows on you inch-by-inch. The first ten minutes are legitimately god awful as we're introduced in clunky, over-familiar fashion to four interchangeable American youngsters on holiday. They hang out at the pool, hang out on the beach, get drunk, fuck around, and for about ten minutes you might be forgiven for thinking you're in a a Friday the 13th movie, One where you actually want the teens to die because they're so bloody unlikeable. I had heard good things about the film, director Carter Smith's first, and was desperately explaining that to my unimpressed wife, Kathryn, as the film meandered superficially through a boring first act.

And yet, the longer the film went on, the better it got, and again, I began to sense the method behind the madness. The four American tourists (particularly Jeff, I'd say) go through a fascinating (if dreadful) "awakening" in the film as they come to terms with where they are and what fate they are facing. That arc of discovery would be mitigated, especially Jeff's heroic valediction, had the film not charted the relative superficiality of the characters to begin with. I can see that on retrospect; it certainly isn't clear on initial viewing. I would think there would be a more artful way to establish this, but perhaps not.

However, once the film settles down at the Mayan pyramid, The Ruins begins to work its invidious, malicious magic on you. The film rarely leaves a single, suffocating location -- the top of the pyramid -- save for two or three absolutely harrowing sojourns into a very dark, vine encrusted chamber deep below the apex. There, the female characters haplessly go in search of what they believe is a ringing cell phone. What they actually find is nothing short of nightmarish. You'll jump out of your skin, in particular, during one scene involving a vibrating flower and Amy's approach to it.

An aura of claustrophobia and entrapment, one almost as powerful as that featured in The Descent (2006) develops quickly following that spine-tingling moment, and before long you realize the characters are effectively surrounded and that their situation is entirely hopeless...unless someone takes a bullet for the team.

Unexpectedly, if quite happily, The Ruins rapidly transforms itself from shallow teen slasher-wannabe into a seventies-style "savage" cinema-style film -- one legitimately along the lines of the original The Hills Have Eyes (1977). It's a film in which the characters must perform absolutely desperate, and horrifying (and extremely...) gory acts to survive. There is a double "amateur surgery" amputation sequence here, and it is one of the nastiest, meanest, most agonizing and torture-some scene I've witnessed in a horror film of recent vintage. And if that doesn't discomfort you, it is followed by a prolonged self-mutilation sequence (involving a small, blunt hunting knife...) that will turn your stomach and set your nerves jangling. Smith's camera doesn't flinch; doesn't pull back, during any of this horror and in a few compositions (particularly one involving Ramsey standing clueless in a pool of her own blood), you can almost feel the naughty, taboo-breaking vibe of an early Craven or early Hooper.

I should really single out Ramsey here (though Tucker is quite good too.) You start out the film thinking Ramsey is a mildly capable young actress (albeit with an incredibly hot body), but Ramsey's progression from vapid youngster to tortured, insane, self-mutilating murderess is quite the accomplishment. Her performance as Stacy is thoroughly convincing without being artificial or histrionic, and again, I'm reminded of The Hills Have Eyes and in particular, the under-appreciated Susan Lanier. Both women are underestimated by audiences, I think, because of their good looks and demeanor (dumb blonds?), but both deliver searing, raw performances in their respective horrors. I'm more shocked to see such a thing in a film today, but seriously, Ramsey is great here in a role that requires her to slowly but dramatically go insane.

There are some missteps in The Ruins, no doubt. Critics were (naturally) quick to pick up on them, and in general, I won't quibble with those assessments. For instance, if attacked by monstrous vines, why not burn the fuckers? We see the youngsters of The Ruins armed with torches for a while, but nothing comes of it. Also, why not throw the legless, spinal-injury case a bone and move him away from the nearby man-eating bushes, since he can't do it by himself? (or oppositely, use him as fodder to make good an escape...).

Still, in the age of really bad horror remakes such as When a Stranger Calls and The Hitcher, beggars can't be choosers. With almost surgical precision, The Ruins proves itself an absolutely terrifying and involving film, one that deploys "jolt" scares, effective gore make-up, and suffocating claustrophobia to powerful effect. Most of all, the film ultimately states something positive about the American character. When the characters here realize what they are facing, they finally leave behind their well-honed sense of entitlement and act in a manner that is both heroic and moral. A sleeping giant has awakened (even if the wake-up is ultimately in vain), and I feel this is true of Americans of any generation. We like a life of leisure, but when forced to fight, we're damn well going to fight, even if it's no longer our first instinct.

I deliberately compare the climax of The Ruins to The Hills Have Eyes, because it is about, like that seventies film, leaving behind everything you care about, everything you cherish (even decorum...), to survive, or to see that someone you love survives. In The Hills Have Eyes, the "white bread" Carters had to blow up their own trailer (a mobile sanctuary and symbol of society) to defeat cannibals in the desert. They had to marshal the corpse of the family matriarch - their Mom! -- as a decoy, even, to win the day. In The Ruins, the blood of a dead friend likewise becomes a handy weapon in the Darwinian battle. And, in another bow to seventies savage cinema, The Ruins ends with Jena Malone making like an utterly mad Marilyn Burns in the denouement of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Ruins has good instincts to go with these resonant images and for that reason, I suppose I give it the benefit of the doubt despite some difficult-to-deny rough patches. If in the end, The Ruins isn't quite a Hostel or a Descent, it is still a scarily entertaining (and effective) horror film of modern vintage.

1 comment:

  1. I noticed you said you read the book. I did too, but have yet to see the film. I did read about the film only to serve my curiosity about the differences between the film and the book. The sense of hopelessness seemed very prevalent in the book. And while reading didn't think the missteps you pointed out, existed. I don't believe they had torches. The vines seems everywhere (so you couldn't 'distract' them) and the natives surrounds the entire temple. So there really was no way out. You either got shot or eventually succumbed to the vines. It was very bleak and unnerving. Well done.