Lounging around a Mexican hotel pool early on in The Ruins, an entitled American med student objects to playing a game of War. "It's total chance," he says. Since this is a horror movie, minutes later chance selects the student and his three friends for a grisly journey into fear. Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own novel (just as he did for A Simple Plan), The Ruins turns out to be a competent but somewhat slack, modest (and modestly budgeted) shocker that doesn't work quite hard enough to justify its plot mechanics.
First-time feature director Carter Smith (no relation to Scott) wins points and a strong cast with material a cut above the current horror standard. Smith's story concerns four pampered young American friends: Jeff McIntire (Jonathan Tucker of In the Valley of Elah) and his girlfriend Amy (Jena Malone of Into the Wild), Eric (Shawn Ashmore of X-Men) and his girlfriend Stacy (Laura Ramsey of She's the Man). On a whim, they agree to tag along with a German fellow (Joe Anderson of Across the Universe) and his Greek friend (Dimitri Baveas) to an ancient Mayan temple, busting out of their coastal hotel confines to see a bit of the real Mexico. Obviously, this idea turns out to be a very bad one. After the requisite warning (a cabbie who says, "No, no. This place no good") and a run-in with some Mayan natives, the group quickly winds up trapped, scared and bloodied, atop a pyramidal platform with deadly creeper vines all around and a dark, foreboding shaft sunk into it.
The string of calamities that follows plays a lot like a less-intense, above-ground version of The Descent: tourists descending unwittingly into a character-testing hell. Self-absorption is a theme, as the characters either snipe at each other or blithely fail to give attention where it's needed. It's also pegged as a distinctly American quality when Jeff blurts, "This doesn't happen. Four Americans on a vacation don't just disappear." Both Smiths show admirable restraint, choosing their moments for hideous gore in unexpectedly realistic contexts. Given the evolved nature of the vines and some questionable plot points, the realism is relative, but the survivalist tone and the field-tested work of cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en) help.
Though consistently watchable, with some good squirmy moments, The Ruins never quite builds up to the level of which it seems capable. The characters go from being shallow plashes to, I suppose, wading pools when tested by horrors, but it never amounts to much. Part of the problem is a foregone conclusion leaving us to tick away the balance of the ninety minutes with a group of increasingly hopeless souls. Gore-hounds will appreciate Jason Baird's brilliant prosthetics, but outside of the bodily invasion that's usually Cronenberg's bread and butter, there's nothing compelling enough for the rest of us to book this finally forgettable trip.
Paramount continues to do Blu-Ray right with a fully high-def unrated special edition of The Ruins. The pristine and highly detailed image befits a brand-new film. The few pitch-black scenes lose some resolution, but generally the image is as bright and sunny as the Mexican setting. The transfer is complemented by a Dolby TrueHD track that sensitively preserves the film's creepy ambient soundscape and Graeme Revell score. The unrated version presented here is slightly longer, with a different ending than the one seen in theatres (the theatrical ending and another alternate are provided as extras).
True to Paramount's high standard, all of the special features are presented in full HD. First up is a nicely conversational commentary with editor Jeff Bettancourt and director Carter Smith. They cover the origins of the project, the involvement of executive producer Ben Stiller, the combination of practical and special effects for the vines, production design, location work, lighting, editing, work with the actors, and other sundry production details.
A suite of Deleted Scenes (11:46 with "Play All" option) has optional commentary by Bettancourt and Carter on all but "Original Theatrical Ending." The scenes include "Rain" (3:04) and "Celebration" (2:37), which together comprise an interesting trimmed plot detail that affects the film's tone; "Going Over the Escape Plan" (2:32), "Alternate Ending" (1:41), and "Original Theatrical Ending" (1:51).
"Making The Ruins" (14:23) takes a close, concise look at the production, focusing on the qualities of the material, the director, the book versus the script, and shooting on location, with a glimpse of the storyboards. Participants include Smith, producers Chris Bender and Stuart Cornfeld, executive producers Ben Stiller and Trish Hofmann, Jonathan Tucker, Joe Anderson, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey, Shawn Ashmore, and cinematographer Darius Khondji.
"Creeping Death" (15:05) looks closely at the vines and the gore effects, adding comments by production designer Grant Major, head vine maker Gary Cameron, visual effects supervisor Greg McMurry, prosthetic supervisor Jason Baird, and actor Dimitri Baveas. "Building the Ruins" (6:20) expounds on the sets, especially those built on location to represent parts of, y'know, the ruins. Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:15): always nice, especially in HD.
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