If The Ruins had been made in the
1970s it would have been the second feature at a drive-in double bill
and it would have starred mostly older actors, people in their 30s and
up. Instead of being about a quartet of American college age kids
getting into weird trouble at a pyramid in the jungles of Mexico, it
would have been about a group of archaeologists getting into weird
trouble at a pyramid in the jungles of Mexico. I would have liked that
film better. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like The Ruins
– I did, and found it effective – but it’s to say that the demands
placed on it by the modern studio system really hamstring the film.

Based on the novel by Scott Smith (who adapted it himself), The Ruins takes
place in essentially one location, atop a Mayan pyramid where a group
of partying kids are trapped by the local Indians. Something is up
there on that pyramid with them, and it’s hungry. Okay, I’ll spoil it –
it’s a man eating vine. Which is both silly and cool – I think the
advertising tries to sell this as Hostel: Viva Mexico when
in fact it’s a monster movie. It’s a weird monster for sure, and it
doesn’t 100% work cinematically (leaves moving of their own accord
isn’t the scariest image you’ll see this year. Or even this night at
the movies if the You Don’t Mess With The Zohan trailer
plays in front of the film), but the monster seems almost secondary.
What director Carter Smith (no relation to Scott) is more interested in
is good old fashioned survival horror. It’s hard to find the relatable scare in a man eating vine, but it’s easier to find the scare in being gravely injured and very far from modern medical care. The Ruins almost
certainly sets a record for squirm-inducing field surgery in a major
motion picture this decade, and that’s where the impact comes in, not
from the creeping foliage. In fact I’ll go on the record as saying that
The Ruins features one of the all-time great amputations ever.

The killer vine also takes a back seat to the deteriorating mental
conditions of the people trapped atop the pyramid; in fact the vine
totes up the lowest kill count of any group in the film. It mostly
waits around for you to bite it before pulling you into the green leafy
mass and doing what it does. The characters breaking down (or finding
unexpected inner strength, depending on their arc) would have carried
more weight if we weren’t watching a bunch of 20-something. Characters
with lives or families to get back to would be easier to get down with
than these kids who are having the worst spring break ever.

The Ruins marks Carter Smith’s
feature directorial debut, and he does a fine job. He builds (and more
importantly sustains) tension very nicely, and he goes for the intense
and bloody scenes with a real visceral gusto. Before the film becomes
stuck in the pyramid location he takes the opportunity to create some
really nice shots, and once the action does become confined he
maintains the sense of geography while finding interesting ways to
shoot the same area. I would nitpick that the end of the first
act/opening of the second act is a little breathless and doesn’t allow
for the proper build up of doom, but he does everything else so well
that it’s hard to complain.

I also have to give the movie credit for staying small; the film
doesn’t spiral out of control into some kind of action extravaganza in
the third act. This, I’m sure, is going to be a problem for a lot of
people as the movie doesn’t have the sort of big bang that we’ve come
to expect from our studio pictures over the last few years, but I think
over time it’s this refusal to shoe horn in big set pieces that will
make folks appreciate The Ruins. Having said that, the film could have used one more bit of oomph in the last act, one extra beat.

The problems I have with The Ruins have
to be laid at the feet of the other Smith, Scott. His characters are
slightly less than archetypes, people who feel just a little bit blank.
The character played by Shawn Ashmore has one defining characteristic:
he likes blow jobs. Thankfully Ashmore is a charismatic actor who brings
the illusion of life to his character, but there’s nothing much in the
script for him to work with. One thing that I will give Smith, though,
is that this is one of the rare horror films where I never felt
exasperated at how people were reacting. Whether people were making
good decisions or bad ones, they were all believable to me within the

It is neat that The Ruins got made at
all. It doesn’t fit any current genre trend, and it certainly has the
most left field villain of a major release in years. It’s also
extraordinarily brutal at times. It’s a good first effort for Carter
Smith, and while it’s no great work it certainly deserves better than
it got this weekend.

7.5 out of 10