Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fright Flashback: Vacations Gone Awry

Welcome back to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will visit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Jurassic World, in which a dino-themed amusement park experiences yet another deadly malfunction. In celebration, we'll be revisiting The Ruins, which depicts death and carnage on an idyllic Mexican vacation.

Year: 2008
Director: Carter Smith
Cast: Shawn Ashmore, Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Ratng: R

The Ruins is my favorite book. It's a bleak, unforgiving horror novel populated with likable, believable, three-dimensional characters who it puts through the freaking wringer. I try to read it every summer and every time I question why I do this to myself. That's why I love The Ruins. It's a delicately-paced horror story that pushes its characters to the breaking point, a transfixing campfire yarn that chills you to the marrow.

The Ruins is not my favorite movie. Although the screenplay was written by Scott Smith (who also wrote the novel) and it stars my perennial favorite Shawn Ashmore, it transforms a pitch black humanistic terror tale into a generic post-Saw gory vacation flick √† la Wrong Turn or Rest Stop.

Luckily, I still like generic gory horror starring Shawn Ashmore, but it's just not the same experience as reading the book, which is like being tethered to a wild boar wearing a coat made of electric eels. So. If you haven't read the book and especially if you know nothing about it, I urge you to ignore the rest of this review and pick up a copy. Don't read a synopsis. Don't even look at your Netflix queue until you're finished. Experience the magic of having your endocrine system ripped out by a paperback. Then you can feel free to watch this movie and/or finish this review.

Welcome back! And I'm sorry.

The Ruins tells the story of a group of college graduates ready for one last adventure before their lives spread them apart. Emphasis on last. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) is a self-righteous young man, an eagle scout type pre-med student who is bored with lounging by the pool; Amy (Jena Malone) is his girlfriend, a wet blanket piece of work whose favorite activity is complaining and/or attempting to make out with other dudes - she's real fun, this one; Stacy (Laura Ramsey) is her best friend, a smart, capable girl; Eric (Shawn Ashmore), Stacy's boyfriend, is more the fratty type but he's smart and confident, a good match for Stacy.

At their beach resort hotel, they meet a beleaguered German tourist named Mathias (Joe Anderson). His brother Henrich went off to meet a hot archaeologist at a dig site in the jungle and hasn't returned. Dun dun DUN! Along with their Greek friend Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), they agree to head out to the site and see if they can find Henrich. When they arrive, they find a massive flat pyramid with a mine shaft at the top. It's completely empty, but the second they set foot on the rock, the nearby Mayan forces arrive and threaten them, forcing them up the hill and shooting Dimitri when he tries to leave.

Knowing they're trapped, the friends settle in and ration their provisions, waiting until Dimitri's friends come looking for them or they can come up with a plan of escape. However, a malevolent force on the ruin doesn't want them to leave. [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, PEOPLE IN THE DARK PLEASE GO HOME IF YOU KNOW WHAT'S GOOD FOR YOU] The vines covering the pyramid are sentient and very hungry. They can imitate human speech, dissolve flesh with their acidic sap, and are generally cleverer than you expect your garden variety weed to be.

This sounds dumb. Believe me, I know. But stick with me here.

Do it for the vine.

True, the vines are certainly more showy than in the book, which renders them a terrifying, unknowable menace, but if we were to list every aspect of the film at which the book is superior, we would be here   until Scott Smith releases another book*. So yes, the vines in this incarnation of the story reveal their true nature far too soon, and are a little too active to be insidious and creepy, occupying the spotlight instead of the festering shadows.

*That joke is funny, because Scott Smith has only written four things in his life. Two novels (A Simple Plan in 1993, The Ruins in 2006) and the screenplay adaptations for both those novels. God, I'm clever.

But! Through a heady concoction of seamless special effects work and a truly stunning bit of audio design which layers the rustling of the vines into an indelibly unnerving soundscape, the vines are nevertheless believable as a real menace instead of yet another cheesy horror movie villain attempting to push the envelope but cutting themselves on the flap.

This decently impressive work on the vines in spite of a script too overeager to show them off somewhat balances out the deficiencies of the paper thin characters. Moment by moment ticks by, leaning on the book far too heavily for any suitable emotional substance. It's almost like watching a Cliff's Notes version of the book, peppered with wooden, obvious dialogue and brutal narrative shortcuts.

Amy has not yet learned to lower her expectations when watching modern horror movies.

Unfortunateiy, the acting is about on the same rough-hewn level of the character work. Jonathan Tucker has always had trouble with his enunciation, and his speech - which sounds like he forgot to take out his retainer in the morning - becomes a liability as the stakes get higher. When he gets flustered he sounds rather like Daffy Duck instead of a large and in charge wilderness man. 

Malone and Ramsey are likewise on and off, though Malone more so. The only unmarred performer is Ashmore, who isn't exactly dazzling, but turns in a committed performances that holds the rest of the ensemble together like glue. Or rather, something adhesive but not quite that strong. He holds them together like high grade molasses.

But these flaws are no worse than the majority of contemporary horror, and it is with great pleasure that I can say that The Ruins is still a largely enjoyable experience. There are several downright pretty shots (especially when the cinematographer gets it in his mind to do something with the vast expanse of bright blue sky the setting has afforded), the characters are shallow but they get the job done, there is a heavy focus on shirtless men (which I can appreciate for gender equality reasons as well as... personal ones), and the gore is terrific and hard to watch. 

I see this as a badge of honor, considering that The Ruins came out the same year as Saw IV. It's not quite fun, but as a gory adventure flick for the bloodthirsty Saw crowd, it certainly avoids most of the grimness and despair that that implies. It's not a flick I'd jump to throw on at parties, but in the future I can see myself re-approaching The Ruins without an ounce of regret and some measure of enjoyment. Come on. This was 2008. That's Oscar-worthy praise right there.

TL;DR: The Ruins is a feeble literary adaptation, but a pretty decent post-Saw gore flick.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1238

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