Adaptations of novels are usually underwhelming cinematic experiences. Scott Smith's (A Simple Plan) second novel, The Ruins, is a shockingly gruesome story about unrelenting despair. It's clear within the first twenty minutes of Carter Smith's directorial debut that he understands this concept, delivering an environmental horror film that is an audaciously violent chamber piece. Filled with gut churning sequences of self-mutilation, sun washed visuals, and a terrifyingly beautiful antagonist, this is an unforgettable horror experience.
Scott Smith adapted his novel for the script, which focuses on a group of privileged college students who become stranded on the ruins of a Mayan temple after a violent encounter with locals. What follows is an unsettling struggle for survival in which the outcome is overwhelmingly grim. This knowledge is what makes The Ruins memorable. The director's grasp of Smith's nihilistic material is pitch-perfect for the bulk of the narrative. This is a story in which its central ensemble is doomed and the payoff (aside from how most of them perish) is in how each character deals with this knowledge, becoming living symbols of the stages of grief.
Jena Malone and Jonathan Tucker lead as one of the trapped couples and both bring their usual level of talent to bear, but The Ruins real star is the vines that have infested the remnants of the temple. Smith and his team poured hours of research into devising the vines’ final incarnation, a remarkable amalgam of practical and digital effects. It is their insidious existence that keeps the hopelessness of The Ruins always in the forefront. Every victory the characters achieve is always stifled by the alien presence that covers every inch of the ruins, a chilling reminder orchestrated by Brian Edmonds's terse art direction. Atmosphere is essential and the existential understanding of not only the vines' intent, but of the eventual outcome is what draws the viewer in.
Darious Khondji's deceptive cinematography turns the dangerous wonder of the Australian outback into a counterfeit Mexican wasteland, framing the bloody business of the temple with distant overviews and sickening close-ups that ensure the viewer has an intimate view of the gore. Sea foam greens and virile blues of the first act are contrasted by predatory reds and dusty browns for the remainder of the film, a physical companion to the characters’ devolutions into murder and madness.
One of the few flaws is in the overuse of CGI, betraying the slow burn practical effect violence that the characters commit on themselves and others with an over reliance on shock factor. The Ruins works best when the viewer is given glimmers of what is happening and the extended CGI sequences feel out of place. An additional flaw is both versions of the final scene. While both versions maintain an air of menace, each come off as a cheap ploy for a sequel when the entire premise of the story involves the despondency of death.
Available now for digital streaming, The Ruins is an exceptional, near perfect horror movie. Virtually every scary film has a deeper theme, a message hidden within the nightmare. If you look hard enough, you could definitely find something to take away from The Ruins, but its dreadful allure is in its blood soaked simplicity. This is a story that will repulse with its visuals and disturb with its bleak ramifications. A self-contained, body horror endurance test, The Ruins is a deeply underrated film that deserves another look.
Let the weeds into your neighbor's yard.