It might be hard to believe that a slasher movie about killer plants would ever feel timely. But in 2021, more than a decade after it was widely panned by audiences, director Carter Smith’s 2008 film The Ruins carries a twofold dose of grisly pertinence.
“We are being quarantined here,” shrieks one character mid-way through The Ruins, as a band of gun-toting, bow-and-arrow carrying locals congregate at the base of the titular structure, hell-bent on ensuring the central gaggle of spunky millennials cannot leave. All around them, the abundant vegetation starts acting strangely, making unsettling sounds that appear to mimic human speech and exhibiting a particular penchant for blood. After a year of lockdowns and several more of the climate crisis being bumped up the agenda of socio-political discourse, a movie about people being forcibly kept in a confined space—while nature hands out some notably gory vengeance—might, for many, hit just a little too close to home.
Admittedly, though, much of what comes before that is largely ubiquitous genre fare. The Ruins sees a group of conventionally attractive white American youngsters travel to a remote temple deep in the Mexican jungle where, low and behold, it’s not just ethereal life experiences and artsy photo-ops waiting for them. Naturally, the naivety in the camp is almost palpable. Along the way, the intrepid explorers blissfully ignore the tell-tale signs that this might not be the best of ideas, never once pausing to question why their destination is not listed on any map or why the local taxi drivers will only venture that way for a premium price.
But once the film’s intriguing, if rather gimmicky high-concept premise begins to find its rooting, The Ruins—adapted from the novel by Scott Smith (no relation to the director)—veers from schlocky, generic horror to gritty (and very, very gruesome) survival drama. What sets Smith’s film apart from the largely saturated sub-genre of bad things happening to even worse people is the concerted effort to make its painfully ill-prepared central bunch—two of whom are played by Jonathan Tucker (known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Westworld) and Jena Malone (best known for her role as Johanna Mason in the Hunger Games franchise)—at least a little bit likeable. Incomprehensible levels of ignorance notwithstanding—and dismissing the odd inappropriate sexual reference—the notably reduced amount of standard-issue dickheadish behaviour is enough to convince us that these friends might actually have each other’s best interests at heart. So much so that when the fear and paranoia starts to set in, and characters are inevitably forced into some particularly ghastly scenarios, there’s enough figurative flesh on their bones—even if, by the end, there isn’t much physically—to make us care that at least some of them make it out alive.
And for those with a taste for such things, planted somewhere in Smith’s rich, unsubtle tapestry of shock and gore are the seeds of some intriguing wider examinations of invasive tourism and privilege (“Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!”). But any trace of such commentary is soon replaced by the more pressing matters at hand: namely, how one might go about amputating a leg with nothing but a rock, a belt and a frying pan.
Still, in this taut, not-for-the-squeamish spin on the traditional slasher formula, there’s much fun to be had. (Well, as much fun that can feasibly be derived from watching somebody yank a flailing branch from a gaping wound in their knee.) By the time the credits roll, there may not be much left to grapple with, but for an hour and a half, The Ruins, in a most literal sense, will certainly get under your skin.
Words by George Nash
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