Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Ruins (2008)

"Shouldn't we check to make sure the rope is safe?"

I'd heard a bit of internet buzz about this movie, so I thought I'd check it out. It's based on the same-named book by Scott B. Smith (apparently quite good, though I haven't read it), who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Carter Smith (no relation). He also wrote the novel A Simple Plan, which was turned into a rather good thriller by Sam Raimi in 1998. So, not a bad pedigree. Like many modern horror films, this one preys on the typical upper-middle class American tourists in a foreign land paranoia. Also like those films, it falls into the trap of trying to paint them as sympathetic while at the same time being obnoxious, over-privileged dumbshits. One of the students points out that "four American tourists don't disappear on holiday". Greeks and Germans, however, are toast.

The movie starts in a frustratingly conventional fashion. A groups of four college students are spending the last day of their vacation in a Cancun resort. Some of the party lament the fact that they've squandered their holiday on sun-drenched beaches and cocktails, so they are delighted when they meet a German guy named Mathias who has access to a remote archeological dig at a Mayan temple. Sweet! I'm sure the archeologists will love having a bunch of drunken idiots tromping all over their digsite. Oh, and one of the girls makes out with Mathias even though she's totes going out with someone else! OMG!

The next morning the four students, Mathias, and Greek-dude-who-will-no-doubt-be-killed-immediately head out to the site, but it's only when the taxi drops them off in the middle of nowhere that they realise they have no plan to get back, so we're talking Magna Cum Laude material here. When they get to the temple (a pretty impressive vine-covered ziggurat) they find the site abandoned. Seems like a pretty rinky-dink archeological dig too, since there's only a couple of tents and a jeep. Things only get worse when a bunch of armed Mayans show up, kill the Greek dude (told ya!) and force them up to the summit of the temple. The natives then set up camp and make sure they don't escape. Almost as if, as one of the students helpfully points out, they are quarantining them up there.

Things get off to a shaky start when they attempt to find a ringing cell phone in the bowels of the temple and Mathias falls down a shaft and breaks his back. Another of their number cuts herself pretty bad during the rescue attempt. I don't know if I should spoil the fact that the plants are alive and carnivorous, but they plastered that shit all over the poster and the DVD cover so what the hell. The plants are alive and carnivorous. What's more, they have a nasty habit of sneaking up under cover of darkness and worming their way into any exposed wounds. Ew! They also have the ability to mimic sounds, such as voices and the aforementioned ringing cell phone. The flowers vibrate or something, there's no giant mouth like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. That would have been pretty cool though, maybe in the sequel.

It's quite fortunate that one of their number is a medical student (there's always one in these kind of films, they're never all fine arts majors or something) so he pretty much takes charge for the rest of the film. There are many gross-out scenes of sans-anesthetic amateur surgery, including limb amputations and plant-ectomies. They don't perform heart surgery with a plunger and a tin-can like Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, but it gets pretty close. These scenes are all pretty gratuitous, but they are probably some of the highlights of the film, well overshadowing any sense of dread or atmosphere. The rest of the horror direction is pretty average, they even resort to a "jumping dog" scare at one point, the last resort of the horror-director scoundrel.

A small group of people are trapped in a confined space until tensions fray and they are picked off one by one. This is a classic horror scenario and can be done well. The problem with this film is that the characters are a bunch of homogeneous morons, only differentiated by their gender and hair colour. Eventually they settle into standard archetypes that do just enough to propel the plot along, but it's too little, too late. Still, it's slickly directed and the gore effects are top notch, so if that's all you're after you'll get your pound of flesh and forget the movie immediately after.

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