"Welcome to the jungle," Guns 'n' Roses once sang. It's a warning the four college students of 'The Ruins' would have been very wise to heed, for here's a horror film that does for Mexico tourism what 'Deliverance' did for the South and 'Hostel' did for Slovakia. Namely, it's another one of those cautionary tales that reminds us that only stupid people travel to remote, untamed locations to go sightseeing -- because if you do, you will meet a horrible and protracted fate far worse than death. And, yep, it's all your fault.
Based on the bestseller by Scott Smith (who also penned the screenplay), the set-up of 'The Ruins' will be familiar to anyone who has seen a horror movie in the past twenty years. A quartet of good-looking (if dimwitted) twenty-somethings is vacationing in Mexico, and decides to follow a local guide to a fabled underground ruin deep in the jungle. They quickly realize they are in for much more than they bargained for, however, after the locals don't take kindly to the intrusion, and promptly waste one of the group with a blast to the head. Trapped on the top of a vine-covered temple, our intrepid heroes soon discover that the locals are not out to kill them so much as quarantine them -- from an ancient organic evil far beyond their worst imaginations.
To give away any more of 'The Ruins' would be to ruin the surprise -- so don't read the next three paragraphs if you don't want spoilers. The effectiveness of 'The Ruins' will depend entirely on your ability to accept and be scared by the film's central premise, which is that a group of blood-hungry vines (yes, vines), possesses a human-like intelligence. Is foliage scary? Or flowers that mimic human voices? Or, more importantly, the various tortures our heroes will inflict upon each other (which include amputation and self-mutilation) in the name of survival?
I struggled through much of 'The Ruins' because of the derivativeness of the plot's conceit. The film is undeniably slick, and for the first 30 minutes or so, fairly well-paced, but once a bunch of giant plants were revealed as the evildoer, I realized that what I was really watching was a big-screen version of that Stephen King short story "The Raft" (which was already brought to the screen once as the second episode of 'Creepshow 2'), crossed with 'The Descent' and 'Turistas.' The problem is that 'The Ruins' ultimately adds little to these past efforts (particularly the superior 'The Descent'), instead it combines familiar elements into a sometimes scary but ultimately pretty darn forgettable yarn.
One problem is that the characters, while likeable, make tons of stupid blunders that defy even horror movie logic. Time and again, screenwriter Smith asks us to swallow some pretty ludicrous decision-making -- whether it's leaving a freshly-amputated body part right next to a pile of man-eating vines, or the characters not making a run for it earlier, or while we're at it, why the group of Mexican locals don't just shoot all of our heroes outright and get the whole thing over with. The performances are as credible as is possible here, particularly Jonathan Tucker (last seen at the end of Leatherface's saw in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' remake) as the group's de facto leader, and Laura Ramsey, who has one of the grimiest and most protracted death scenes in recent horror movie history. As attractive as the cast is, they are left with little to do but frustrate our sympathies while we wait to watch them die.
To be fair, 'The Ruins' is well made and, at times, tense. Director Carter Smith brings a fair amount of visual style to the proceedings, and loves to spring some intense moments on us just when the pace is beginning to lag. A couple of harrowing sequences near the end are incredibly graphic ('The Ruins' is not for the squeamish, especially in its unrated form here), so it's impossible not to feel for the protagonists as they make the dawning realization that they are completely fucked. As the film winds down to the obvious "we gotta make a run for it" climax, there is little left to gnosh on besides the bloodletting. If there is a thematic point to 'The Ruins' (and I haven't read the original novel, so perhaps there was more to it) the movie doesn't bother to explain it to us.
Despite these reservations, 'The Ruins' has enough undeniably unsettling moments that diehard horror fans should take the trip. I must admit to being fairly entertained watching it, and at a brisk 90 minutes, the film doesn't overstay its welcome. Yet like so many of the "torture porn" flicks that have been gutting cinemas recently, it's hard not to feel that 'The Ruins' is just another endurance test about nice kids getting dragged through hell, only set in a different location. I wish 'The Ruins' had actually explored the psychological aspects of the characters' ordeal more than the physical effects of it, but I suspect that for most modern horror fans, that may still be enough.
Paramount offers up a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode for 'The Ruins.' The film's gritty, dark, and high-contrast visual style translate rather well to Blu-ray, though I can't say I was ever really blown away by this transfer.
'The Ruins' alternates between overexposed, sun-bleached exteriors and very dank, grimy interiors. I found the bright scenes a bit hard on the eyes with blooming whites and an overall "hot" look, while dark scenes were sometimes impenetrable. Colors are often harsh, which adds to the horror (the gore is rendered to especially gut-churning effect) but does lend a fuzzy, grainy look to the transfer. Shadow delineation can disappear in the blackness, though generally the image is still well-detailed and, sporadically, three-dimensional. Befitting a new release, the source is clean, though again, the high-contrast photography does result in noticeable grain. The encode is smooth, too, with no major compression artifacts.
Paramount offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track for 'The Ruins,' and it's a surprisingly subtle presentation that is quite effective. This one is sure to deliver goosebumps.
Unlike most horror films, 'The Ruins' does not pummel you with annoying shock stinger cues and other loud bangs on the soundtrack. Graeme Revell's score is almost atonal, in fact, and the sustained moodiness is quite effective. Minor and off-key sounds fill the surrounds, offering an eerie ambiance throughout (the whistling of the flowers is particularly unnerving). There are occasional bursts of discrete effects that are well done and nicely dispersed in the surrounds. Overall, the dynamics of the mix are likewise impressive, with solid low bass and a clean, spacious sound to the upper ranges. Dialogue is always clear and distinct in the mix, and I had no issues with volume. This is a very well-done soundtrack.
Paramount has produced a straightforward collection of bonus features for 'The Ruins,' but the level of quality is high. All materials are presented in full HD, too, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
'The Ruins' is a well-made, well-modulated and often disturbing scarefest that is definitely not for the squeamish. Unfortunately, it's not really about anything, so it lacks the kind of resonance that elevates a great horror film above the merely effective. This Blu-ray is a solid release, with strong video and audio, and a nice package of extras. Fans of 'The Ruins' can pick this one up without hesitation, but I'd definitely give it a rent first before buying sight unseen.