The essence of horror is claustrophobia...isolation. It's one thing for death to lurk just a few short feet away, but knowing what's to come...knowing that all hope is lost...being pitted against a primal force that can't be reasoned with...hearing that inevitability in the quickened pulse and the last few muffled breaths that are drawn...that is horror, and that's precisely the movie that The Ruins is for the majority of its intensely focused, unrelentingly bleak hour and a half runtime.
The first thirty minutes and change may sound like any other Hostel retread, following four young twentysomethings whiling away their last days of freedom in Mexico: Amy (Jena Malone), Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore). Their vacation is winding down, and none of them have bothered with any sort of Mexican culture that doesn't have a shriveled-up worm at the bottom. Jeff feels like he's spinning his wheels, but the others don't particularly mind boozing away their last couple of days poolside. That changes when a German tourist (Joe Anderson) offers them something other than a trip to the usual stale tourist traps. Mathias knows of a remote Mayan temple -- one that isn't on the map -- and suggests that they tag along with his small group that's making the trek.
The idea's a little unsettling, sure, but it all sounds safe enough. The site is being studied by a group of archaeologists, after all, and if something were to go wrong along the way, there's a small village just past the temple. When they finally do get to the ruins, though, a friend of Mathias' is quickly shot dead, and the temple is swarmed on all sides by hostile villagers. The shell-shocked kids may not speak the language, but they get the message: if they make any attempt to leave the temple, they will be slaughtered without remorse and without a flicker of hesitation. They packed enough food and water to be able to hold out for at least a little while, but the five survivors are soon faced with something much more devastating than starvation and a small army of murderous Mayan villagers...
These characters aren't red shirts half-assedly thrown in simply because this is a horror flick and someone has to be slaughtered. No, there's something much more believable...more sincere about the five of them, and the fact that they do seem real -- that there are solid actors behind them who know how to infuse them with some sort of dimensionality -- makes it that much more excruciating to see how they spend the next hour and a half suffering. The Ruins shrugs off the stale formulas and doesn't slowly knock them off one by one in between a string of lazy jump scares. Most horror movies leave viewers asking who, how, and when is the next victim going to die. In The Ruins, there is no question: they're all going to die, and the agonizing tension is drawn by watching them struggle with that realization.
That psychological bent has a hell of a lot to do with how effective The Ruins is, although especially in this more gruesome unrated cut of the movie, there's no shortage of grue slathered around the screen either. As seasoned a gorehound as I am, The Ruins continually had me squirming uneasily, and that comes both from the unflinchingly visceral physical effects as well as seeing these characters disintegrate as they're faced with the inevitability of a grisly death. Scott Smith's screenplay -- adapted from his novel -- is lean and intensely focused, never giving the audience a break in the tension. There's no cacklingly dark sense of humor to break through the looming gray clouds, and the movie never cuts away from these characters. It's an endurance test.
It's been far too long since a horror movie so unrelentingly seized my attention the way The Ruins did. That's not to say that the movie's perfect -- its ending feels somewhat rushed, and I can't say that the primal force that stalks these characters is wholly terrifying -- but it's one of the most taut, suspenseful, and consistently satisfying genre movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. Highly Recommended.
Video: The Ruins' stylized photography -- its skewed contrast and startlingly vivid colors -- looks phenomenal in high definition. The look of the movie adapts to each setting: the brilliant blues of the sky and ocean on the beach, the exaggerated greens as the tourists skulk through the jungle, and the sunbaked golds that make up the bulk of the film. The 2.39:1 image is brimming with depth and dimensionality, and even with the very limited lighting in The Ruins' darkest scenes -- one key sequence inside the temple is lit purely by torch -- shadow detail remains robust throughout. Black levels didn't strike me as quite as deep and inky as usual, but they aren't weak enough to distract either. No print flaws or compression hiccups with this VC-1 encode could be spotted. The Ruins isn't reference quality, no, but it's a very strong effort from Dreamworks.
Audio: The sound design for The Ruins is more interested in establishing an unsettling atmosphere than reveling in the usual genre theatrics, and even though this lossless TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack isn't as unrelentingly aggressive as horror mixes usually are, it greatly complements the intensely focused approach of the film. The steamy Mexican jungle is teeming with life, and all of the channels are swarming with that chirping, skittering ambiance. The Ruins generally steers clear of lazy jump scares or booming stings in the score for an easy jolt, although it does summon a hellish amount of bass when called for. Eerie setpieces like the chorus of mimicry and the assault from all directions inside the temple also make the most of the multichannel setup.
There are no dubbed soundtracks this time around, but The Ruins does include subtitle streams in English (both traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Extras: As has been the case with most of Dreamworks' day-and-date releases, all of the extras on The Ruins are presented in high definition.
Editor Jeff Betancourt plays the role of moderator on the disc's audio commentary, coaxing a really engaging conversation out of director Carter Smith that's rarely marred by any gaps of silence. Some of the highlights include Carter's use of a sense of reality to ratchet up the tension, brutally honest test screenings, the sound design tearing through of a library of some 90 different animals to flesh out the jungle, how many scenes had been shuffled around during editing, Ben Stiller's turn as a producer, and how Carter used his background as a photographer to pitch his vision of The Ruins to the studio. I really enjoyed this track, and fans of the movie should find it worth setting aside the time to give a listen.
The disc's deleted scene reel (12 min.) includes two alternate endings: the final moments from the theatrical release alongside a second finale with an even bleaker coda than this unrated cut. The other three scenes -- all of which were rightfully cut for dampening the tension -- include a glimmer of hope during a torrential downpour, the celebration that follows with a round of shots, and a scene near the end of the movie that would've added an additional layer to certain motivations in the climax. With the exception of the original theatrical ending, Smith and Betancourt offer optional commentary for the deleted scenes as well. Along with explaining why these scenes were trimmed out of the final cut, their comments include how they didn't need elaborate rain machine rigs after all as cameras rolled during one sequence and retelling a pretty funny quip from Jena Malone filling in an unexplained gap about her character.
The first of the disc's three featurettes is "Making The Ruins" (14 min.). It's meatier than the average EPK, and it does a decent job condensing down some of the audio commentary's key talking points. Much of the talent on both sides of the camera is interviewed, discussing some of the character dynamics, the difficulty in juggling material that easily could've devolved into camp, the many changes Scott Smith made while translating his novel to the screen, Carter Smith's transition from a seasoned photographer to a first-time feature film director, and shooting a horror movie both in broad daylight and on location in the searing heat of Australia. Nearly all of this material is covered in greater detail in the disc's commentary, but for viewers who don't have an hour and a half to devote to that track or just want to see some footage of the cast and crew at work on the set, the featurette's worth a look.
"Creeping Death" (15 min.) divides its time between the primal force that torments these characters -- the scientific thought process behind their appearance, the workshop where they were meticulously constructed by hand, and a design that was revised after some initial camera tests -- as well as the gruesome practical effects behind The Ruins' buckets of blood. The wizards of gore gleefully show off the prosthetics and blood-spewing fake limbs, and the cast and crew talk about how stomach-churning the effects were on the set.
Production designer Grant Major discusses the design and construction of the Mayan temple in "Building the Ruins" (6 min.). Some of the topics include constructing a more pyramid-like temple versus what amounted to a mound in Scott Smith's novel, how the temple itself is a mix of CGI and an elevated set with a perfect 360° treeline, and the shaft and chamber being seamlessly shaped together by three physically separate sets.
A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: Grim and unrelentingly tense, The Ruins easily ranks among the most satisfying horror films of recent memory, and its release on Blu-ray is bolstered by a strong audio/visual presentation and a solid set of extras. Highly Recommended.
The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.