Paramount // 2008 // 93 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // July 8th, 2008
Jeff: Four Americans on vacation don't just disappear! The police, our parents, the Greeks, somebody. Somebody is going to find us. We just have to be alive when they do.
The Ruins is a handsomely crafted horror movie that slipped in and out of theatres without too many people noticing. Even though the book was a major bestseller, it seemed the film version had a hard time finding the audience it deserved. It's a unique experience, because The Ruins doesn't follow the predictable formulas of either slasher or monster films. The best aspect is it allows the characters to think quite a bit about the situation they are in, and contemplate their next moves. It also gleefully blends extreme elements of "torture porn" thrillers such as Hostel or Saw to make the audience squirm. The Ruins is a gruesome ride with more character development than what you'd expect from a horror piece. All that said, it doesn't work nearly as well as the book it was based on. The monster working behind the scenes to destroy the protagonists comes off as slightly silly once fully revealed, but the cast and crew go for broke in making it as harrowing as they can given the constraints.
Jeff (Jonathan Tucker, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)), Stacy (Laura Ramsey,Venom), Amy (Jena Malone,Donnie Darko), and Eric (Shawn Ashmore,X-Men) are close-knit college buddies on holiday in Mexico. They meet a German traveler (Joe Anderson, Across the Universe) who claims he is going to join his brother at some Mayan ruins that are off the map and not the usual tourist trap. The foursome can't resist the idea of an adventure before they leave. They even convince one of their drinking acquaintances, a young Greek (Dimitri Baveas in his film debut), to come along for the ride. Little does every one know that where they are heading is regarded as both evil and sacred by the Mayans. One step on to the ruins, and you can never leave. To make matters worse, there is something up there that is going to make their stay a whole lot more unpleasant.
Scott Smith's novel The Ruins was purchased by Hollywood before the book was completed or published, because the writer's reputation preceded him. This was thanks to his Oscar nominated adaptation of the author's harrowing debut, A Simple Plan. The Ruins was named by Stephen King as the best new horror work of the decade, and the printed version was a best-selling beach thriller. Adapting The Ruins to film would be no easy task since it was primarily a psychological tale about four young Americans trapped on a hill by nervous Mayans sacrificing them to an unseen god. Along with their German and Greek friends, they discovered a monster that made them all face inner demons. The book was gruesome, full of "in the head" dialogue, and a menace that would be hard to realize in a convincing way on the big screem. It all took place in one setting, a lot of the scariest parts were what happened to the characters emotionally, and the point of view constantly shifted from one person's perception to the other. None of it seemed to lend itself to a cinematic outing easily.
Of course, when you look at The Ruins, you come away saying the books is much better. Even though the author himself wrote the screenplay, there are key differences in the material that reek of "test audience interference" or "Hollywood adaptation." Some of the major changes include: fewer characters make it to the ruins, the setting is far more elaborate even including electricity at night, things happen to different characters, the monster is more prominent early in the game, time seems severely compressed, and a gentler ending is provided to soften the last blow. The book is unapologetically grim and much more torturous than the film could ever be. If you're seeking the most thrilling experience, I suggest reading the novel first and then checking out this screen version.
The film does manage to get many things right, and thankfully the whole thing comes off as original thanks to the source material. We have the obligatory impossibly attractive victims, but they seem to have more acting chops than your average "stars of the WB" casting we see in most horror movies today. Jena Malone and Laura Ramsey come off the best in the ensemble, but they admittedly get the choice bits to play. The gore quotient is insanely high, and The Ruins isn't afraid to go to the dark places that easily earn its R-rating and then some in the unrated cut. There's no holding back with this one, and it has been criticized for being out and out "mean-spirited." If you're squeamish, this isn't the film for you. The effects guys wisely choose to blend practical work with CGI, and the results are visceral and completely convincing. They deserve a ton of praise for taking the best of both worlds, and finding the right moments to use each effect and when to layer them. Another standout is the excellent photography, which really makes the film look like a major studio production. Surprisingly, most of The Ruins was shot using natural light, and the results are amazing.
The Ruins is being released in dual versions including a theatrical cut as well as this Unrated Edition. Definitely seek out the unrated version, because it offers the most footage and extra features. You'll notice the difference in the color of the cover art, and for some reason the theatrical R-rated edition skips any bonus material. The unrated film adds in extra gore and tweaks the ending with an extra beat. It also includes making of featurettes, a director and editor commentary, deleted scenes, and three separate endings filmed for the movie. Truly the deleted scenes and optional endings don't add all that much, but it is interesting to see the different permutations of the final moments. There's even one that adds a jump scare and reminds me a great deal of Carrie. The commentary gives a ton of insight on why the film made changes from the book, and it's an amiable track that certainly deserves a listen. The "behind the scenes" featurettes are well done, avoiding the usual electronic press kit sessions. Celebrity producer Ben Stiller even makes an appearance, since he is close friends with author Scott Smith. You get to see how the effects were accomplished, and it's all impressive. Gore hounds will go nuts for the sequences that show how they achieved the stomach turning parts of the film. Technically the DVD delivers a solid transfer and a great audio track. There are no problems with digital artifacts, and the colors and black levels are nicely executed. Surround effects work well, and all five speakers are engaged.
In the end the film hinges on whether or not you buy the menace our protagonists face. In the book, the monster attacked the heroes psychologically, wearing them out, and finding their weak points over seemingly endless days. In a book, your imagination lets an author get away with a lot, but in a movie there are points where we have to see things concretely. In the printed form, the trapped kids were facing the dangers of primarily dying from exposure, and it's something the film can't replicate in an hour and a half. They had to make the menace come from somewhere else exclusively, and it had to come out of hiding fast. This is where The Ruins gets in trouble. When you learn what the kids are facing and the peculiar talent it possesses, you may need to stifle a giggle or two. For a horror movie, that can be disastrous, and it almost makes The Ruins die on the vine. Luckily late in the garme, the filmmakers realize this and let the horror come out of the situation that is spiraling out of control moreso than anything else.
The Ruins is an adaptation that works on some levels and doesn't quite make it on others. All in all, it remains an interesting and unique horror tale that is worth checking out. The good news is it is well acted, beautifully photographed, and has a nice mix of both practical and CGI effects. The bad news is it can't quite get to the level of desperation or fear that the novel so effortlessly achieved. Key to the story is the idea that the kids become monsters themselves when they are trapped and have to fight for survival. The menace they face acts as a funhouse mirror that gets inside their heads as it attacks their bodies. You get only a sense of that in this film; whereas, in the book it's clearly communicated with deadly precision. Read the book first, and then grab the unrated DVD where the ending is appropriately dark. You also get a ton of extras to explain the intentions of getting this ghastly tale up and moving. Horror fans will find this one definitely worth a look since it is smarter and more savage than anything thrown out in the genre in recent history.
Guilty of being a cruel gross-out horror film that grows on you.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary by Director Carter Smith and Editor Jeff Betancourt
* Two Alternate Endings
* Original Theatrical Ending
* Three Deleted Scenes
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes
* The Book's Official Website