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April 4, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | April 4, 2008 |

Unlike 98% of most book-to-film adaptations, Scott Smith’s The Ruins stood a fair chance to be captured, if not improved upon, by a cinematic rendering. Smith’s novel about (spoiler!) killer vines would’ve worked better as a short story; after deftly accumulating dread, Smith spends too much time parsing out the rest of the plot to maintain the hellish urgency needed in a horror yarn. Still, the book was a decent piece of gloom ‘n doom, and should’ve served well with cinematic condensation. The film, directed by Carter Smith (no relation) from the author’s screenplay, is probably as good an adaptation as was possible. It’s not great, bedeviled by the same expositional lag and lack of sympathetic characters as the book, but finely utilizes enough lurid textures to be decent, throwaway horror.

The film starts with a bit of character setup: two couples are doing a bit of post-grad vacationing on Mexican beaches. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) is an alpha-male know-it-all bound for med school; Amy (Jena Malone) is something of a reckless partier; Eric (Shawn Ashmore) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are the laid-back goofs. After running into a German tourist, Matthias (Joe Anderson, whose fake accent is ghastly), the four decide to accompany him on a search to find his brother at an off-the-map archaeological site. Smith knows these characters aren’t terribly compelling or sympathetic on their own, so he wastes little time setting up the pins. While there’s still some mystery to be had, the build-up journey into the jungle (and unknown danger) makes for decent suspense; that danger arrives in the form of several pissed-off Mayan villagers brandishing pistols and bows.

The group is forced, for no reason they can discern, onto the pyramid-site with bullets and arrows, and then trapped there. Matthias insists on being lowered into the pyramid to search for others, resulting in a disastrous injury. When the real danger, for those lucky enough not to know already, arrives in the form of murderous ivy, it should appear just weird enough to be creepy. Ideally, the story should’ve had as much suspenseful build as possible, but Smith blows his expositional wad a bit early, leaving the latter half of the film with almost nothing to do and locationally grounded. Scott Smith used this section to erode the characters’ emotional hope of survival, with the super-vines tricking the four players into turning on one another. The director simply goes an easier (though non-gratuitous) route of lurid violence. It made sense to chuck out this angle, as depicting intelligent, scheming plant life on screen would’ve appeared, well, stupid, but the story loses the emotional aspect of the horror present in Smith’s book. But what’s left is still lacking; the audience probably won’t be that sympathetic to these vapid, attractive kids who refuse to believe bad things can happen to them, which leaves violence and rote curiosity to drive the story. To the director’s credit, it does, at least on a functional level.

*Ending spoiler, sorta*

The ending, which also departs from the novel, flies somewhat in the face of the film’s mordant tone. It’s possible that Smith felt apocalyptic finales like that of The Mist are ultimately unsatisfying, but so is the lone-survivor denouement tacked onto The Ruins. Perhaps it’s fitting, though, that Messrs Smith felt no reason to stay true to the novel’s ending when that ending served as the appropriate bookend to an impressively macabre tale; the film never succeeded in establishing that tone, so it probably didn’t need any surfeit doom. In any case, it doesn’t completely spoil what came before it. The Ruins is moderately well-done horror which accomplishes what it set out to do - thrill and shock, and then be promptly forgotten.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

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Film | April 4, 2008 |

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