Contrary to what this blog would have you believe, I am not a slavering horror movie fan (to refute, see reviews of Black Sheep, Night of the Living Dead, Cloverfield, The Mist, Planet Terror, Deathproof and 1408 ). This is because so very many horror movies these days are, well, simply horrible. I've always had appreciation for the classics (the Freddy, Halloween and Friday movies (up to a point), the first Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, etc.) and when a newer horror flick promises something beyond nasty torture porn - e.g. realistic characters and claustrophobic scares even before you know what the monster is (a la The Descent) - I'm intrigued. What The Ruins has to offer is strong acting, good pacing and terror inflicted by multiple parties.
A bunch of college kids, on their last day of vacation on the Yucatan Peninsula, take a day trip to an off-the-map Mayan ruin: a small pyramid covered with vines. As soon as they start climbing and exploring, native Mayan peoples surround them brandishing guns and bows. The kids try to leave, thinking they're trespassing, and one of them is promptly killed by the Indians. Terrified, the kids clamber to the top of the pyramid and that's where the real fun begins. The vines covering the pyramid are the movie's monster: sentient, carnivorous and voracious; the native people have contained the vines by salting the earth around the pyramid but any person who comes into physical contact with the vines is killed or confined to the pyramid to keep the vines from spreading.
As if being trapped by the native people and eaten by the vegetation isn't enough, the kids are very nearly their own worst enemies as they try to save themselves, battling psychological frights as well as the physical ones. This isn't an over-the-top slasher scenario: this shows us rational people making the best choices they can in an irrational situation ... and just nothing works for them. When one of them is badly injured and then attacked by the bloodthirsty vines, they decide to amputate his legs to keep the vegetal infection from spreading. It's horrific. And so when one of the girls, already unhinged, realizes she's been infected by the vines, she attempts to cut the parasites out of her own body with obviously disastrous results. I spent quite a bit of time peeking between my fingers during the squishy parts.
Three of the four leads are easily recognizable which lends instant credibility to the film: Jena Malone (Saved!, Donnie Darko), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, Smallville) and Jonathan Tucker (The Black Donnellys, In the Valley of Elah); the fourth, Laura Ramsey, has put her time in on several B flicks. Also lending credibility is the fact that all four of the leads can act, and in doing so, become fleshed-out characters that the audience actually cares about - in a horror movie about killer Mayan vines, no less!
Despite the cliches rampant in the first few minutes of the movie (drunken spring breakers, gratuitous boobage - although they look real, so bonus points for that), The Ruins quickly becomes much more than a lame spring break slasher flick. I for one am glad that I toured Chichen Itza long before I saw this movie.
Addendum: I'm such a dumbass. I had no idea that the director of The Ruins, Carter Smith, is not only a Maine native but was practically a neighbor - he graduated from Mt. Ararat high school in Topsham the year after I graduated from high school two towns up the coast. Go, Carter! (Muchas gracias to Paula L. for the edification.)
Addendum 2.0: Here's a link to a local paper's story about Carter and his new movie. (Muchas gracias to Anon. for the tip.)
7 hours ago