The Ruins: Unrated

The Ruins: Unrated (2008)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey, Shawn Ashmore
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Trailer

In the 1970s, Carter Smith's "The Ruins" might have been a clever exploitation film on the drive-in circuit, made on the cheap with minimal visual effects and a cast of unknowns. In 2008, it is soft-core torture porn that quite literally sets up its pretty, Hollywood protagonists for brutal sacrifice.

On vacation in Mexico, four college friends impulsively decide to join a group of European archaeologists on a dig at the site of an ancient Mayan ruin. The non-English-speaking natives are not happy about the visiting tourists, and some rather nasty business sends the students up to the top of a Mayan temple where they are held hostage by the gun-toting natives below. Trapped without sufficient food and water and no cell phone signal, the desperate tourists quickly find their lives threatened by a less concretely defined villain atop the temple.

By the time it is finally revealed that this villain is a carnivorous vine that covers the ruin (I don't think I'm giving away any more than the film's poster does), one minor character has been shot to death—with both an arrow and a bullet—another has broken his back from a fall, and a native child has been murdered by his own family. It is safe to say that after such grisly and genuinely horrifying episodes as these, the introduction of man-eating vegetation seems silly and downright preposterous by comparison. Although it is all played with the utmost seriousness and admittedly had the potential to be effective, this plot twist seems out of place with everything that was built up before it, a giant question mark that neither makes much sense nor provokes much terror. Some well-mounted suspense early on in the film eventually gives way to scenes of increasing depravity as our good-looking protagonists are whittled down to a bloody pulp before our eyes.

As I mentioned earlier, the premise could have been taken straight from a B-exploitation flick ("Little Shop of Horrors" anyone?), but instead first-time feature director Carter Smith gives it the polished, Hollywood treatment, complete with four blandly attractive lead actors. As such, the film seems less interested in developing either the premise or the characters than in playing up the sex appeal of its young stars in sadistic preparation for their bloody downfall. We first encounter the protagonists around a hotel swimming pool, lounging in their bathing suits. Their skin at this point is totally unblemished, as only a Hollywood makeup department could make it, and a few scenes later they are showering and dressing, unknowingly preparing for their cinematic sacrifice. For the bulk of the movie they are laid out on top of the temple, an offering to the Mayan unknown (or, more aptly, the nihilistic guidelines of the contemporary horror film). Over the course of the film, their tanned skin will be slowly peeled away until, at least for one of them in a particularly graphic moment, all that is left is the bloody bone underneath.

All of the characters are one-note and undeveloped. One of them is conveniently a medical student, although this serves the continuity more than it develops him as a person. It is hard to fault the actors here, as they apparently try their best with material that limits them to either screaming or breathing heavily. In a role that might have done Hitchcock proud, Laura Ramsey is set up as essentially the blonde American ideal, vivacious and sensible, but not too uptight to service her boyfriend when he comes calling. She unfortunately spends the last third of the film mutilating her body that Smith so fully displayed in its perfection in the early scenes.

Much is made in the DVD special features of the character psychology of the novel by Scott Smith (who also wrote the screenplay) upon which the film is based. I have not read the novel, but whatever psychological ruminations it may contain are ousted in the film in favor of unflinching gore. This movie is not interested in the mental or emotional states of its characters; it is fixated solely on their physical destruction with scenes of horrific violence that are effectively squirm-inducing but emotionally empty. We don't care when these characters die because they are not real people; they are manufactured victims, fresh from the assembly line and nicely packaged. Because the characters are unconvincing, we cannot buy into their peril, and the entire movie falls apart. Had this been a 1970's exploitation film, it may not have had any more character development than it does now, but at the very least the low production values would have lent it a verisimilitude that might have made it more convincing. "The Ruins" is ultimately a slick piece of Hollywood artifice.

Released by Dreamworks Home Entertainment, the DVD features a very clean transfer, presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. The picture is sharp, with excellent contrast, solid black levels, and good skin tones. This version of the film is the unrated cut, which adds presumably more gore and a new ending.

Audio on this release is equally good, presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are delivered clearly and strongly without distortion. Aside from some occasional screaming sessions, the film does not demand too much of the soundtrack, and the 5.1 surround is just fine. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.

The film is accompanied by an optional audio commentary track with director Carter Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt. It is pretty standard, with the director and editor discussing the production and background elements. There is nothing here of great interest.

Some behind-the-scenes featurettes follow, including "Making The Ruins" (14 min.), "Creeping Death" (15 min.), and "Building The Ruins" (6 min.). Respectively, these features cover the adaptation and initial production, the visual/makeup effects, and the set design, and are made up mostly of interviews with cast and crew, including executive producer Ben Stiller (of all people). Like the commentary, these features are routine and more interesting for those who liked the film.

Three deleted scenes are included, as well as the original theatrical ending and another alternate ending. Optional commentary from Smith and Betancourt is available for these as well. A trailer rounds out the disc.

In the end, "The Ruins" is done in by its artificiality and flat characters. It strives for complex psychology but doesn't even scratch the surface. There was plenty of potential for a creepy throwback to exploitation cinema of the past, but the film is stunted by its own absurdity and goes nowhere. The only glee I can take away from this movie is the irony of its tagline, "Terror has evolved." Judging by this film, it's dried up.