Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson, Dimitri Baveas, Jordan Patrick Smith
Written by: Scott B. Smith, based on his novel
Directed by: Carter Smith
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and gruesome images, language, some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 91
Date: 04/02/2008

The Ruins (2008)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Vine Mess

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new horror film The Ruins is not a remake or even a copy of any horror film of recent years. We're talking first-class material, adapted from a novel by Scott B. Smith, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for A Simple Plan (1998), adapted from his own 1993 book. (See my interview.) The Ruins is a terrific airplane novel, surprising and gripping, and Dreamworks could have made an outstanding film of it. But they threw it away.

Once again Smith wrote his own screenplay, and the director chosen for the job, Carter Smith, can't entirely squelch it. Because of Smith's strong material, The Ruins emerges as an average horror picture, miles above most of the other recent horror pictures, and they didn't even try.

Four twenty-somethings are on vacation: Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are best friends, staying at a Mexican resort with their boyfriends, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore), who don't seem to have much in common. They meet Mathias (Joe Anderson), from Germany, who tells them about his brother, who has disappeared with a girl while visiting some secret ancient ruins. He's about to go out there to look for him; would they like to join him?

The ruins are pretty spectacular; it's like a pyramid with a flat top and steps all around, located in a clearing in the jungle. Vines cover almost every square inch, except a stairway up the middle of one side, and a large clearing at the top. A band of Mayan sentries show up and prove they mean business by killing one of Mathias's pals. The tourists are not to come down off the ruins. There's a deep pit at the top and they can hear Mathias's brother's cell phone ringing at the bottom of it. Mathias goes down, but falls and breaks his back. Stacy goes down after him and cuts her leg. They realize that they'll have to spend the night and ration food and water. They bicker, and things get progressively worse.

Smith directs the movie in a completely rudimentary fashion, straight out of Horror 101. A mean dog jumps out of the back of a truck and "shocks" us. A girl lays in the darkness with her face turned away from the camera; when Stacy reaches for her, the girl's head suddenly turns and jerks into view, hideous and half-decomposed. Whenever anything tense happens, Smith's camera begins shaking and wandering everywhere, cutting almost arbitrarily instead of letting it come to rest or discover anything.

The main characters are pretty vapid but this doesn't prevent the movie from growing tense when it's supposed to. Smith's ingenious tale unfolds in just the right layers, with characters making one horrible discovery after another. But each time the movie lurched to a new level, I mourned the fact that it had been tossed off to an amateur director (with only a short film or two to his credit) rather than a proven master of the genre. John Carpenter hasn't directed a feature film since 2001, and Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Brian De Palma and John Landis often have trouble getting films financed. Not to mention that the material seems ripe for David Cronenberg. If the studio was merely going to give up on this project, why not spend the same amount of money and effort hiring one of these semi-forgotten masters to do the work?

DVD Details: Not unexpectedly, Dreamworks has released an "unrated" version of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray. It runs about 2 minutes longer than the theatrical cut and apparently contains more "character development" as well as a slightly different -- and better -- ending. Director Smtih and editor Jeff Betancourt provide a commentary track. Extras include three featurettes, deleted scenes (including the original theatrical ending) and trailers.

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