The Ruins (2008)

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*. In my notes on Hannibal I mentioned how I had reviewed the novel by Thomas Harris before the movie came out, and felt pretty sure that it would never be filmed, at least as written. I didn’t see how they’d do the man-eating pig stuff, or the final scene with the fellow eating his own brain.
*. I was wrong, and not for the first time. They kept all of the horrible parts in, though I don’t think that helped make it a better movie.
*. I also reviewed Scott Smith’s The Ruins when it was first released, and even though Smith’s previous novel, A Simple Plan, had been turned into a well-received film, I thought it unlikely that he’d be following that one up.
*. Why not? Well, just because the novel was so damn stupid. Fun, in a trash-horror sort of way, but very, very stupid.
*. I was wrong again.
*. Here’s the final paragraph of my review of the book: “Popular horror has always had a way of tapping into larger cultural anxieties. Dead teenager movies from the 1980s were often seen as containing a subtext about the dangers of promiscuity. In the 1950s it was radioactive mutants. Stephen King is obsessed with family breakdown. But The Ruins doesn’t resonate on any level. Perhaps there is an environmental message in it somewhere, or a heartfelt plea for the rest of the world to learn English so we can better understand what they’re saying. But in all likelihood it is just a warning for affluent young Westerners visiting Cancun to stay on the beach. Where they can safely read books just like this one, with the sound of long, warm waves tumbling in their ears.”
*. So there are obvious sub-genres involved here. The first and most obvious is the innocent (spoiled, beautiful, young) Americans abroad finding themselves in some global backwater (“it’s not even in the guidebooks!”) that threatens to eat them alive. See Hostel (2005) and Turistas (2006). As the twenty-first century got rolling the world started to seem a very scary place for Americans.

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*. The second sub-genre I would invoke is that of the “trap” movie, where there’s nothing particularly scary going on but we have a group of characters who unaccountably find themselves stuck in a death-trap that they have to spend the rest of the movie trying to figure their way out of. See Cube (1997) and Saw (2004). There’s a definite tinge of existential dread in these films, the restricted sets recalling some theatre production of No Exit. Hell is other people just as much as it’s the heat from the flames. Will the small group be able to cooperate and find a way to escapet? Or will they fall out and kill each other? Just whose idea was this shitty trip anyway?
*. Given what I think are the most obvious precedents, it’s interesting that when director Carter Smith is asked on the commentary what horror films he tooks as inspiration he responds first with Cannibal Holocaust (a choice he later backtracks on a bit), and the “body infection” horror of David Cronenberg (he specifically references The Brood). There is some connection here, but I find it interesting that there’s no stylistic influence discernible in either case. This is a movie made very much in the idiom of twenty-first century American horror.
*. I would praise the idea more if it weren’t so stupid. I mean, really. It’s not quite as stupid as the book, but still. Does this plant exist nowhere else but on this pyramid in the middle of nowhere? Is it really able to sustain itself on the odd tourist who wanders into its web of vines? How does it grow so leafy and green 30 meters underground, where there is no light? Or does it not bother with photosynthesis?
*. On the commentary track Smith admits his greatest fear was that the whole thing would become comical, and it was a legitimate concern. A man-eating plant? Little Shop of Horrors was a dangerous precedent in everybody’s mind.
*. Given the silliness of the central conceit it’s not surprising that the only real horror here is what the group members will end up doing to themselves. The two big gross-out scenes both involve radical battlefield surgery in the war against the plants, and the two most shocking scenes are of the natives killing those who become infected. The ruins are just the backdrop for the more human horror.
*. These vines spread like cancer, and it’s this under-the-skin disease angle that I find most interesting. This may be the source of the film’s real nagging sense of unease: that even in the twenty-first century healthy young people can be stricken with a condition for which there is no cure.

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*. Since they know the vines move and like to go after flesh, how much sense does it make for them to leave the paralyzed and bound Matthias lying right beside a big clump of them, even after they’ve seen them snatch away his lower legs? Maybe they could have moved his stretcher closer to the middle of the clearing? Or watched over him? They make such a big deal of trying to take care of him and then they just basically feed him to the plants.
*. In other respects it’s a pretty basic film. The plot is the reverse siege, like Rec, where the characters are trapped inside with the monster and prevented by armed guards from leaving. First-time director Smith does a professional job, but can’t create suspense. There are no scary moments in the film, only a few disgusting ones.
*. I’m not sure what to make of the gender angle. On the one hand it seems anti-sexual, with the sexiness of the characters being progressively degraded throughout the film. But the males look buffed and waxed, with abs from a men’s fitness magazine cover, and the film spends a lot of time looking, close-up, at Stacy in her tank top and panties. It’s also a notable change from the novel that Stacy is the character who flays herself alive to get at the vine. In the book, that role is taken by a guy. Smith doesn’t give any explanation for the change other than the fact that it had already been made in the first draft of the script he read and he thought it worked. Overall, I find the presentation of Stacy troubling.
*. If you have the DVD you can watch the movie with several different endings. I always take this as a bad sign, indicating that the producers weren’t sure themselves about the movie they were making.
*. As it stands, they wanted something different than the book, which was seen as being too bleak for a mass audience (in the book all the characters die in the ruins). This is true, but isn’t the adapted ending worse? With infected Amy getting away the vine is loose in our world. That can’t be a good thing. Except for a sequel.

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