In The Ruins, adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name by Scott Smith (zero relation to the director, Carter Smith), two couples vacationing in Mexico fall prey to a mysterious force atop an ancient Mayan ruin. It’s a plot that sounds simple enough, and for a film where 90% of it takes place in one location deep within the jungle, it mostly is. That is until you realize *what* that force is, and furthermore, what that force represents. As each couple begins uncovering the dire situation, the film begins peeling back layers of more than just skin, revealing an astute slasher film with a grim social commentary about what it means to be a tourist in a faraway land; one where both the locals and the geography wants you dead.
The Ruins centers around American couples Jeff (played by Jonathan Tucker) and Amy (Jenna Malone), and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore), who while visiting Mexico, meet up with German tourist Mathias (Joe Anderson), who invites them, accompanied by his friend Dmitri, on a trek to a remote Mayan ruin to search for his brother. When they reach the ruins through a blocked path, they are confronted by Mayan locals equipped with bows, pistols and rifles who don’t speak their language.
As tensions quickly escalate between the two groups, Dmitri is fatally shot with arrows after stepping on some of the vegetation that lines the ruins. Fearing for their lives, the group ascends the stairs to the top of the Mayan remains where they think they are safe from the threat of the locals. After Mathias falls and is pulled out of a shaft that leads into the heart of the ruins after attempting to look for a cellphone, the remaining two couples decide to wait, determined that a search party will eventually arrive.
While all of this could easily make for its own backwoods horror film, machete wielding villagers and all, this only comprises about 15 minutes of the entire film, establishing its dire dilemma with the efficiency of a seasoned slasher. And to an extent it is, as our frightened tourists soon realize that in fleeing one very real danger, they have inadvertently come face to face with another; killer talking vines!
These vines may not wield an ax or brandish a butcher’s knife, but they stalk the perimeter of the ruins like a madman hell-bent on punishing the youth and their wicked ways. And like any self-respecting pseudo-slasher, The Ruins manages to fit that in without really holding onto the excess baggage of the genre.
Jeff, who attends med school some 2,000 miles from Amy, seemingly fits the bill of loving boyfriend, though director Carter Smith leans the story out by doing away with any late night rendezvous’ to the beach or liquor soaked romps back in the hotel to highlight the pre-marital sins cast by our vacationing couples. Instead, Smith captures the intimate, more telling signs, such as a lusty smile from Amy upon meeting Mathias; further alluding to Amy’s tangled relationship with Jeff. This approach not only showcases the subtle sexuality that Jenna Malone exudes so well beneath a sun-soaked gaze, but it also allows for the tropes of the slasher to unfold without taking much of a detour into territory we’ve all come to expect from horror.
Yet what better way to expand on the genre in a fresh and funky way then by offering up a unique kind of slasher, one who is never quite given that illustrious backstory that places weapon in hand in order to show how the killer came to be. The motives of the creeping vines are never subjected to a shocking revelation, or discovered to be this grand supernatural entity. The vines merely exist atop this innocuous tourist attraction, determined to kill anyone who gets too close. And like Leatherface and Jason Voorhees before them, who guard their sacred homes, the vines too protect there’s from undesired trespassers. Because while The Ruins is on the surface, a slasher film, it masquerades as something more, something sinister that manages to subvert the genre while acting as a pointed criticism on tourism.
As dawn turns to dusk with supplies dwindling, the group begins to realize that nobody is going to come for them. This is a sight that’s off the beaten path, and as Amy points out, Mathias’ friends can barely find their hotel room. Time is running out. With tensions – and blood levels – rising, and as the local’s camp out, determined to keep them contained, we begin to see the true danger that stalks, observes, and ultimately listens to them.
These are ancient vines that have evolved over the centuries, lying in wait, picking off tourists when the moment arises. Once tensions build, they begin emulating the group’s voices with delicate red petals that capture surrounding noise, throwing it back in a cacophonous cry that begins to psychologically break each couple. In one instance, the flowers play lustful sounds to convince Stacy that Eric and Amy are sleeping together, systematically shattering her concept of reality. The killer of The Ruins isn’t a malformed simpleton with severe maternal issues, but intelligent and manipulative flora that slowly subverts the slasher genre.
Except the invading weed isn’t just metaphorically in their heads, whittling away at whatever brain matter the all-night partying hasn’t already diminished, but literally, as the vines are discovered underneath the skin, further stirring panic within the group. Using the only knife they have – a relatively small hunting blade – they begin cutting through muscle and bone after they eat away at Mathias’ legs, which need to be amputated before infection spreads. The same knife is used to dig into Stacy after she discovers the creeping killers underneath her skin. At this point, the vines have begun to invade the only truly sacred ground they know; themselves, turning The Ruins into a body horror home-invasion film with the knife as their only means of defense.
If seeing one of the villagers execute a little boy after he advertently comes into contact with the plant life is unsettling, then you haven’t seen just how far author turned screenwriter Scott Smith is willing to take us. As each surviving member begins to slice and dice into each other’s body, it’s clear the killer has flipped the tables, turning each one on the other in an attempt to speed up the process. Blood pours from surgically made incisions, hunks of human meat is cut into, and someone falls victim to the psychologically ruinous ways of the vines, revealing the subversive and bloody layers of the film that manages to place it well beyond standard eco-slasher.
The flora, like the locals, are pissed, and through small glimpses of vine covered backpacks and limbs, it’s clear the killer of The Ruins is out to get any tourist that disrespect their land, even if it means cutting through genre like flesh.
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