Sometimes, movie studios are their own worst enemies. They buy into their own demographical hype, convinced that specific films will only play to a certain type of audience. Take the romantic comedy. Believing, as they do, that only women and the wussed out men they are dating/married to will attend the latest example of relationship wish fulfillment, distributors bathe everything in unnecessary layers of pixie sticked estrogen. Horror gets it even worse. Hollywood is so convinced that only future spree killers and pimple faced Goth geeks love a good scare that they bury the latest macabre in short burst opening weekend stratagems. They figure 'make the money quick, get the DVD into stores ASAP, avoid anything like a proper mainstream release'. Of course, this ends up destroying the chances that a GOOD fright flick will find a wider appreciation. This is clearly what happened with the superior The Ruins. What could have been a broader based hit was instead confined to a few dread reckoners. Lucky for them.
Jeff, Amy, Stacey, and Eric are on a friendly trip through Mexico when they run into Mathias, a German tourist with an interesting story to tell. Seems his brother is an archeologist, and has discovered a remote set of ruins that's way off the typical maps. He is going to visit the place with his pal, and wants to know if the quartet would like to come. Intrigued by the implications, and desperate to do something except sit around the beach, they all head out into the jungle. Sure enough, they come upon the ancient site...as well as a group of very hostile natives. Though they clearly want our young people dead, they seem more than happy to instead let them linger atop the temple. Turns out, there's a reason for their weapon-based insistence. These ruins are cursed with something ungodly, unholy...and very, very hungry. As it slowly lures each of our heroes to their possible death, its unexplainable nature becomes something that both mystifies, and horrifies.
The Ruins has so many opening strikes against it that, overall, it should never work as a viable terror trek. The premise - which won't be spoiled here - is like Stephen King meshed with Alan Titchmarsh, the cast is made up of those typical Abercrombie post-adolescents, carefully calculated looks replacing anything remotely resembling character or complexity. The setting suggests the recent bout of torture porn backdrops, foreign locales signifying exotic fears and blood-soaked brutality. And then there is the narrative itself, the standard storyline of uninformed Americans led to a literal tourist trap, their inexperience internationally sealing their already futile fate. Yet thanks to some stellar work behind the lens, and some equally impressive turns in front, The Ruins rectifies many of its potential problems, turning into a spine chilling slow burn of suspense and pseudo-splatter. You may not believe everything you see, and experience a minor plot hole here and there, but overall, this is one of the better genre efforts of the last few years.
All kudos to Scott B. Smith, who adapts his own novel to calculated, clockwork effect. Responsible for the Sam Raimi classic A Simple Plan, it is clear that he knows something about crafting a guarded, evolving screenplay. Nothing is ever really explained in The Ruins. We don't get that grand expositional moment where a know it all champion finally breaks their silence and goes on a ten page breakdown as to the whole who, what, when, where, why, and how. The vicious villagers who use deadly force to keep our heroes cornered have an inferred purpose, actions speaking much, much louder than words. The horror is not given a logical rationale. It merely exists, a product of an ancient culture and a modern world unfamiliar with its botanical badness. There is also no sudden savior, a last act manufactured messiah that turns our previously clueless casualties prescient, and capable of great feats of survival. Instead, Smith simply sets up the premise, places some recognizable types into the situation, and lets the evil unfold...brilliantly.
Of course, it helps that he has a similarly surnamed accomplice at his disposal. Carter Smith may not be a household fixture, but his work on The Ruins indicates that he's one of the few directors that understands the mechanics of fear. He never overplays his hand, hinting at more than the movie can handle. Nor does he wallow in excessive gore, though there is a moment of impromptu surgery that will definitely leave you squirming in your seat. With a capable cast that includes Jonathan Tucker (In the Valley of Elah), Jena Malone (Into the Wild), and Shawn Ashmore (X-Men: The Last Stand), and a wonderful location to work with, this filmmaker maneuvers around the pitfalls that undermine other horror efforts to keep our nerves frazzled and our gooseflesh good and bumpy. Even better, The Ruins is the kind of film that stays with you, playing over and over in your mind like a sickening glimpse of cinematic snuff. It's rare when terror is as dark and desperate as it is here. Perhaps this is why the film is so good.
Presented in a bright and colorful 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, this Dreamworks DVD looks wonderful. Many of the scenes take place in broad daylight, and the transfer here keeps the colors and details intact. Even during the occasional night or dim interior sequences, there is no loss of definition or cinematic clarity. As for the 'Unrated' tag, it's hard to tell what's been added. This critic did not see the film during its theatrical run, so you will have to look elsewhere to discover what the added gruesomeness entails, if anything.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is excellent, bringing a lot of mood and atmosphere to the narrative. When "the evil" finally makes itself known in a scary sonic way, the speakers do a damn fine job of keeping the creeps going. Even better, the dialogue and musical score are consistently upfront and discernible, our ability to understand what's going on added by such expository - and eerie - designs easily managed.
The lack of a rating aside (which merely means that the MPAA didn't get another pass on the DVD material prior to the package's release), Dreamworks fleshes out the film nicely. The disc includes a cutting commentary by director Smith along with editor Jeff Betancourt, a collection of deleted scenes, an alternative ending, the original theatrical ending, a Making-of, a couple of explanatory featurettes, and a collection of trailers. Each one has something intriguing to offer. Take the edited material. It was removed because Smith felt it added too much 'hope' to the story. In his discussion with Betancourt, he mentions keeping the tone dark and very menacing. The differing endings also suggest something akin to possibility, while another brings the terror very close to 'home'. As for the backstage glances, we get views on how the 'evil' was created, a how-to on false fašade pyramids, and enough Australia as Mexico heat to have you sweltering. All in all, this is a wonderful set of supplements to an equally excellent film.
Perhaps the most startling thing about The Ruins, aside from how satisfying it is, is the fact that it all could have gone so completely and utterly pear-shaped. Had the premise been played any other way than serious, with even the slightest tinge of irony or satire in the set-up, we'd be laughing instead of screaming. Had the performances been subpar, or the direction weak, we'd find ourselves face to face with yet another example of sloppy Sci-Fi Channel chum. But thanks to a solid script, devious direction, and a capable cast and crew, The Ruins redeems itself. This Highly Recommended film (and DVD) recalls the best of what the genre has to offer, while arguing that not every example of suspense and dread has to be fashioned out of festering body parts and man's inhumanity to same. Sometimes, the fear can come from the most unlikely of sources, and in the case of this journey into ancient awfulness, that's all that matters.