by Tony Dayoub
The Ruins opened this past Friday in theatres. The screenplay by Scott Smith is based on his own bestselling horror novel. In the story, a group of friends vacationing in Mexico venture out to a remote Mayan ruin to try to fit in some culture in between their otherwise alcohol-soaked escapades. There's a reason the ancient temple they find is not on any maps, they soon find out. It is a place of foreboding and death, one that not even the surrounding flora and fauna get near... except for a creeping vine covering the structure. Smith's screenplay is not as impressive as his earlier one for Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. But The Ruins is enlivened by an excellent young cast and director.
A horror movie is most effective when you come to identify with the intended victims in it. In the current crop of such movies, it is difficult to relate to the largely anonymous cast of novice actors. This film casts extremely talented actors that draw you in. Not unlike Brian De Palma's Carrie, I believe in years to come this movie will be revisited by those curious to see the cast of young actors, who will no doubt be in demand in the future. That film had such up-and-comers as John Travolta, Sissy Spacek, and Amy Irving. This film stars Shawn Ashmore (the X-Men films), Jena Malone (Donnie Darko), Laura Ramsey (She's the Man) and Jonathan Tucker (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), all relative unknowns. Tucker (so effective in the neo-noir The Deep End) is capable of letting his teary eyes speak volumes of fear while he tries to keep the group focused on escaping their plight. Ashmore buries his preppie good-looks behind frizzy hair and full beard to get us to connect with his regular-joe. Malone's frown belies her determination in surviving their predicament.
Special praise goes to Ramsey. I'm rarely caught off guard when seeing an actor. I usually recognize them from somewhere. Ramsey, though relatively new, has done some noteworthy films. But she is extremely sympathetic in a role that could have easily been, for various reasons, the most annoying in the film. I see big things for her pretty soon. All the young actors give distinct voices to characters that could have been ciphers, making the movie even more chilling.
Director Carter Smith conjures up some genuine shocks by leaning on traditional elements of fear rather than gory violence. It looks especially challenging considering much of the film takes place in bright daylight. But by concentrating on sound effects, judicious - instead of generous -use of blood, and the dynamic cinematography of Darius Khondji (Se7en), Smith is able to muster up some horrific moments. Even more impressive is his assuredness given that this is the former fashion photographer's first feature-length film (check out his disturbing, gay-themed, horror short Bugcrush).
Encourage filmmakers to turn away from the current trend of torture-porn cinema, and go see this small old-fashioned chiller instead.