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April 8, 2008

Hostel influence can’t spoil Ruins’s B-movie charm

[img id="80453" align="alignleft"] Thanks to the likes of Hostel and Saw, it seems every horror movie of the last four years has run on a surfeit of gore and a deficit of wit. The lone exception, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games—not technically a horror film—made up for its off-screen violence with unrelenting sadism. For audiences wary of all the viscera, The Ruins, released in the cinematic dog days of spring, offers a welcome respite.

Oh, sure, you’ll see multiple shootings and stabbings, a man’s bone yanked out of its socket, and a terrified young woman slicing into her own forehead. But rather than being the Rube Goldberg–style acts of a faceless serial killer, the violence is all for a recognizable purpose—namely, survival.

On the last day of a tequila-soaked vacation to Mexico, lovebirds Amy (Saved!’s Jena Malone) and Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) follow a hand-drawn map to an ancient Mayan temple. Too late, they realize they’ve incurred the wrath of the locals, who form a blockade around the ruins, forbidding them to leave. Along with bickering couple Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Eric (X-Men 3’s Shawn Ashmore), they must use their combined intelligence and sparse rations to make the best of an increasingly grim situation.

Why so grim? Well, let’s just say The Ruins combines the creature-feature shock of Little Shop of Horrors with the mass paranoia of Dawn of the Dead. For the most part, it’s creepily effective, due to Carter Smith’s competent direction and Scott Smith’s smart screenplay, adapted from his 2006 novel. Smith was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1998’s A Simple Plan, and while The Ruins is unlikely to earn such accolades, it’s clearly not angling for them. A Simple Plan featured Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton as brothers exploring the dark side of the American dream. The Ruins opens with former teen-queen Malone in a cave whimpering, “Help me. Somebody help me.”

For a while, The Ruins progresses in the same lowbrow vein. The actors, in the grand B-movie tradition, are unknown or hazily familiar. (When your biggest name is Malone, you know Reese Witherspoon wasn’t holding out for more money.) The pounding score seems poised to telegraph cheap “gotcha!” scares. The omnipresent sex and booze, complete with a gratuitous nude shot of Ramsey, initially conspire to classify The Ruins as one of Roger Ebert’s Dead Teenager movies—or, in this case, a Dead Twentysomething movie.

But then something interesting happens. After the four principals reach their destination, The Ruins settles into the rhythm of a predictable but enjoyable psychological drama. The characters quickly assume their roles, recognizable to anyone who’s seen other stories of survival like Lifeboat or Stalag 17. Tucker’s Jeff is the Pragmatist, concerned with rationing water and holding out until help arrives. Ashmore’s Eric is the Slacker, who challenges Jeff’s authority and generally behaves as if he were merely waiting for a delayed flight. Ramsey’s Stacy is the Flake, a spoiled brat and the least equipped to handle the horror of the ruins. After shedding her clothes in an early scene, Ramsey delivers probably the best performance of the film; she clearly wasn’t hired just for her physique. And Malone’s Amy is the Everygirl, occupying the role Jamie Lee Curtis perfected in Halloween. Jeff’s med-school background is the most we learn about any of the characters’ lives. But the actors embody their archetypes convincingly, even lovingly. Director Smith serves up a few memorable shots, like when Jeff urinates into a patch of leaves and realizes—at the same time the audience does—that something down there is moving.

Of course, Smith’s book goes into much more detail. We learn that Eric will teach at a prep school, Amy has a weakness for cute dogs, and Stacy’s drunk uncle once delivered a prophetic line that pretty much sums up his niece’s fate. Smith ended his novel differently, too—and while that finale was subtle and haunting, it’s easy to imagine producer Ben Stiller assuring Smith that the new conclusion is more “cinematic.” Such missteps prevent The Ruins from shaking its B-movie origins. It’s content with a few well-crafted scares, a handful of cheap ones, and a vague admonishment of “ugly Americans” who treat foreign countries as capitalist playgrounds.

Though more pronounced in Smith’s novel, that lesson wasn’t lost on the preview audience for the film. After tittering at a few meager jokes about oral sex and know-it-all boyfriends, the crowd released a huge guffaw for the following line: “Four Americans on vacation don’t just disappear.” As delivered by Tucker in a petulant whine, the line is a lot funnier than it reads. It’s just one of The Ruins’s many modest charms.