Director – Carter Smith, Screenplay – Scott B. Smith, Based on His Novel, Producers – Chris Bender, Stuart Cornfeld & Jeffrey Kramer, Photography – Darius Khondji, Music – Graeme Revell, Visual Effects Supervisor – Gregory L. McMurry, Visual Effects – Rising Sun Pictures ( Supervisor – Ken McGaugh), Additional Visual Effects – Frantic Films (Supervisor – Mike Shand), Fuel International (Supervisor – Dave Morley) & Pixel Playground, Inc. (Supervisor – Don Lee), Special Effects Supervisor – David Fletcher, Prosthetic Effects Supervisor – Jason Baird, Production Design – Grant Major. Production Company – DreamWorks SKG/Spyglass Entertainment/Red Hour Films/International Filmproduktion Prometheus GmbH & Co. KG
Jonathan Tucker (Jeff), Jena Malone (Amy), Laura Ramsey (Stacy), Shawn Ashmore (Eric), Joe Anderson (Mathias), Sergio Calderon (Lead Mayan), Dimitri Baveas (Dimitri)
Two young American couples, best friends Amy and Stacy and their respective boyfriends Jeff and Eric, are holidaying in Mexico. On the day before they are to return home, they meet a fellow German tourist Mathias beside the hotel pool. He tells them that he is planning to visit his brother Heinrich who is working as an archaeologist on a Mayan ruin that is not on any of the tourist maps. They join Heinrich and another tourist Dimitri in heading out to the ruin. As soon as they arrive, they are attacked by local Indians and Dimitri killed. The others are left trapped on the pyramid surrounded by the Indians. Everything starts to go wrong – Heinrich has disappeared and Mathias breaks his back scaling down a shaft into the pyramid to investigate a ringing cellphone. A wound in Stacy’s leg is infected by plant growth that starts to burrow under the skin. Creepers devour the wounded Mathias’s lower body half, necessitating that they have to cut his legs off without any medical equipment. Gradually they come to the realization that the plant life that covers the pyramid is carnivorous and semi-sentient.
I missed The Ruins in theatrical release. The trailers and poster turned up in theatres but then (as with an inordinate number of films of late) the film went direct to dvd. I was not overly concerned about this as on glance-value it looked like no more than another bland modern teen horror film. However, my curiosity was then piqued by seeing that Stephen King had placed it on his list of the Best Films of 2008 – although in that King also put Death Race (2008) on the same list, one had to regard such a recommendation with a certain dubiousness.
One’s hopes sank even further after finding out about the film’s basic premise – killer plants. My immediate response was to wonder if there ever had been such a thing as a good killer plant film – look at the likes of From Hell It Came (1957), Voodoo Island (1957), Womaneater (1957), The Day of the Triffids (1962), Matango, The Fungus of Terror/Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966), Please Don’t Eat My Mother (1972), Tales That Witness Madness (1972), Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), The Guardian (1990), Trees (2000), The Happening (2008), Attack of the Vegan Zombies! (2009) with one having to turn to tv to find anything that becomes halfway reasonable – The Avengers episode Man-Eater of Surrey Green (1965), the Doctor Who episode The Seeds of Doom (1976) or the tv mini-series remake of The Day of the Triffids (1981). The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) might be the exceptions but they did not take the killer plant idea terribly seriously. The problem seems to be that it is not easy to make creeping leafy things seem threatening or to give animate life to gnarly bark-covered trees. In bald synopsis, The Ruins sounds like it should have been made on a B-budget and probably with tongue planted in cheek – I mean, there are not many other ways to play the idea of people being stalked by carnivorous killer plants that can imitate human voices.
Caught between two extremes – Stephen King’s recommendation vs yet another teen horror and the less-than-promising idea of a killer plant film, I was unsure which way The Ruins would go. The result ended up being a pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t place The Ruins on my Best of the Year list but it is modest and above average. It is not long in before the film quickly shucks any association with being another teen horror film – it opens with standard scenes of the teens partying but these are abruptly jolted out of expectation as the group arrive at the temple and are confronted by the Indians and Dimitri Baveas is shot in the chest with an arrow and the back of his skull off blown off by a bullet. From there, The Ruins rapidly turns into a stripped-back survival film – where the characters are isolated in a situation, having to deal with a menace they do not understand with the scantiest of resources available to them and their problems constantly being compounded by the script’s turns.
Carter Smith does a good job of drawing the tension out and plays it with far more conviction and seriousness than such a premise might indicate. The CGI plant effects are generally convincing. That said, there are times the film staggers a fine line between inherent risibility and conviction. One of these is when we start hearing plants imitating cellphones and human cries. Another is where Jonathan Tucker abruptly announces that they will have to cut off Joe Anderson’s legs – Tucker’s medical background is not introduced until after this point and the scene has a preposterousness that sits there defying one to laugh at. That said, Carter Smith pulls the scene off with a grim conviction, moreover without excessively dwelling on the grisliness of it and trying to make The Ruins into another Torture Porn film. The finest scene is the one where the people have to dig the tendrils out from under Laura Ramsey’s skin. It is not this that is effective so much as the scene that comes afterwards where they sit around and Laura Ramsey keeps insisting that there are more tendrils under her skin, which we naturally assume is just her upset state of mind, only for one to suddenly crawl across under her forehead and everyone turns away and pretends they didn’t see anything. It is a scene that fully conveys the horror by implication without having to say anything.
On one level, the characters are no different to the usual ones that inhabit almost any modern teen horror film – young, good looking, given little more distinction than first names. The difference comes in the care and attention that is given to them and the performances. Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey are relatively lightweight but there are two fine performances from Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone. Jonathan Tucker is a young actor with boyish looks who has tended to be cast as golden boys in various parts, before a starring role in tv’s The Black Donnellys (2007). Here he manages to allow his cute good looks to furrow under considerable moral complexity. Even better is Jena Malone, a chameleon-like actress who has appeared in a number of roles without having a yet instantly recognizable face. Here she plays a character that seems at once fragile and intelligent, somewhat of a rarity for these teen horror roles, which almost usually only focus on one thing – whether or not the cast members are good looking.
Interestingly, The Ruins comes executive produced by no less than Ben Stiller. It is adapted from a 2006 novel by Scott B. Smith, who also wrote the book and film of A Simple Plan (1998). Director Carter Smith (apparently no relation to Scott B.) was a newcomer and The Ruins was his first film. He subsequently went onto make the ghost story Jamie Marks is Dead (2014). Despite the stated Mexican locations, the film was shot in Australia.
(Nominee for Best Actress (Jena Malone) at this site’s Best of 2008 Awards).