Release Date: April 4
Director: Carter Smith
Writer: Scott B. Smith
Cinematographer: Darius Khondji
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey
Studio/Run Time: Paramount Pictures, 91 mins.
The Ruins is one of the most satisfying horror-thrillers of recent years, a swift and vibrant tale that’s been impressively concocted from recycled material. It's a collage of pasted pieces, but it proves once again that the flow of a dance is not always in its originality but in its grace.
The plot follows four beautiful Americans—two guys and two girls—vacationing in Mexico when they decide to take a trip off the map to see a rumored archaeological dig. Blah, blah, blah. The film doesn't waste much time explaining the unnecessary lore, but it carefully lays out the important details—the maps, the jeep, the personalities, the locations.
After some efficient setup, things quickly get creepy, then gross, then both creepy and gross. But it all stays pleasingly simple—visiting Americans in the jungle surrounded by unfriendlies atop Mayan ruins that want to eat the tourists. Director Carter Smith alternately reconfigures his elements—torches, pulleys, out-of-control plants and backwoods emergency surgery—for a series of increasingly gruesome, weirdly creative set pieces. It's the kind of film that Sam Raimi might have directed 20 years ago, except that Carter plays it straight, even though he seems to assume the audience won't, offering them ample opportunities to shriek and hoot at the wounded heroes. (Screenwriter Scott B. Smith wrote Raimi's film A Simple Plan, and cinematographer Darius Khondji has shot films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Haneke and Wong Kar-Wai. This helps.)
What sinks most movies of this sort are their dumb and distasteful characters. The women who can't take the sight of blood. The xenophobes. The people who charge into dark holes. The Ruins has them all, but they arrive in small doses, which leaves the film relatively sure-footed even on loose gravel. These four young people make some mistakes, no doubt, mostly by thinking only one step ahead, but they're punished for it and quickly recognize their conundrum.
Just when The Ruins begins to feel too inert, too tied to its little mound, too hemmed in by an intractable problem, it leaps free of its bounds. Just when it flirts with a supernatural outcome that surely can't match the down and dirty flesh and blood that's been creeping us out so far, it diverts our attention with a clever finale that makes you want to cheer for what amounts to a catastrophically selfish act, one that's never really questioned by the film. But, what the heck, it's all in good fun.