Friday, April 04, 2008

"The Ruins" -- * * * 1/2

There are few things I hate more than lazy horror films. Shit out to make a quick buck on opening weekend, they reek of a lack of effort and satisfy no one in the theater (coming next Friday: "Prom Night"). Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own novel (he adapted his own "A Simple Plan" as well), "The Ruins" takes a very good, intense, somewhat-strange thriller/horror novel, and does a damn good job doing it justice on film. Marking a very good feature debut for director Carter Smith, the movie features a handful of genre conventions (utterly gratuitous nudity, some stomach-churning gore), but this isn't your standard teens-in-peril flick, not by a long shot. For one thing, there aren't just haphazard scares and "boo" moments, there's a very careful, slow build of tension. The first half of the film does an extremely good job of economically laying the groundwork for what's to come, but not showing its cards too much. If you haven't read the novel, you'll be kept incredibly engrossed while never being quite sure exactly where things are headed.

Smith opens the film with a sequence of a girl in a dark pit calling for help as the shadows behind her obscure her obvious predator. Just enough to provoke, this scene cuts away to our main storyline of four young Americans-- Jeff (a surprisingly built Jonathan Tucker), Amy (Jena Malone, pouty as ever), Eric (Shawn Ashmore, looking a whole lot like Danny Masterson) and Stacy ("The Real Cancun's" Laura Ramsey) on vacation in Mexico. Soon joined by two other foreigners, Pablo (Dimitri Baveas) and Mathias (Joe Anderson), the group impulsively decides to play tourist and check out the much-buzzed-about ruins of a Mayan temple. Upon arriving, they find they're, to put it mildly, not terribly welcome by the locals, and encounter some... trouble. That's all I want to reveal, since so much of the experience rests upon unpredictability, though the trailer goes several unfortunate steps further.

Like the novel, things take a certain turn halfway through (in a manner similar to "From Dusk Till Dawn," though not as jarring and unrealistic), and you have to either roll with it or not. It's a credit to director Smith that there's a sense of dread imposed from minute one and there's little-to-no comic relief, or even moments for nervous laughter. Almost strangely for a genre picture, the filmmaking-- from the structure to shot composition to the foreshadowing-- seems to have been very carefully worked out, and clearly isn't just another assembly-line job; it's also beautifully shot, not commonplace for a film like this While they're obviously very different films, the movie "The Ruins" most reminded me of was Neil Marshall's "The Descent," which showed a similar discipline, sense of character establishment, and scares/intensity that was all the scarier for being formed organically out of the story.

Running a lean, nasty 85 minutes, "The Ruins" avoids any sort of downtime or dragginess, but never embraces the rushed style of similar films, instead keeping us engaged with a unsettling slow burn. There are minimal but notable changes from the book here (the ending is slightly different and two characters' arcs are switched), but the essence is mostly captured. Though I'm a fan of Smith's novel, I admit I didn't have much expectations for the film, thanks to both the lackluster trailer and the fact that Paramount/Dreamworks wasn't holding any screenings for it until 10 p.m. on the night before opening (I just got back a few minutes ago). I don't know quite why they didn't let critics see it earlier, but it just seems to be in line with their half-assed push for the film, which I guess most have written off as a likely bomb. I really, really hope this isn't the case, and that the real horror fans go see this film rather then shell out their bucks for the lazy, churned-out shit that happens to spend more on marketing.


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