Recent horror films tend to bore me. Most of them seem so less sophisticated, as if they were made for children; the morality is so clear, and every victim has to be punished for something. But there are a few worth your time. The Descent begins as a claustrophobic horror about spelunkers trapped in a cave, then pulls a switcheroo and gets nice and scary; Dead Silence is rather straightforward horror but works pretty well. And now this year’s The Ruins, which sadly fell from theaters rather swiftly, sets up an eerie, imaginative premise and follows it through to the inevitable, bloody conclusion quite well.
Much like my other favorite, Open Water, we begin with average Americans on vacation. Here they are in Mexico, lazing on the beach, when a German friend suggests they go visit a little-seen pyramid in the jungle. Now who wouldn’t want to go see ancient ruins of a lost culture? That’s more interesting to me than beautiful beaches, which can be had in many parts of the world. So they pile into Jeeps and head for the ruins. Also like Open Water, we are introduced to our victims through personal conversations in their hotel rooms, where they behave like they’re really on vacation and not on a Hollywood set. None of that L-shaped sheet crap here.
They quickly arrive at the pyramid, which isn’t as remote as it seems. It stands alone in a clearing, overgrown with vines and not particularly hidden or forbidding. But when they approach it, looking for the friends who went there first, armed men come out of the jungle shouting angrily in a foreign language; not Spanish, either. They can’t understand them, and when they approach after having climbed the ivied steps of the ziggurat, the men attack them. Our friends flee to the top of the structure and hide out, surrounded by men with bows, guns and machetes, and no apparent escape, except within the pyramid.
Now that wouldn’t be very interesting, we’ve seen plenty of “plucky American defeats armed, evil foreigner” movies; Hostel wasn’t that bad, if you get past the idiotic parts where they try to make the gore extreme. In this one, we slowly begin to learn why the Indians who live in the jungle nearby are freaky about this place, and guard it. In the patches of vines infesting the area, they soon find the dessicated remains of one of their brethren- and assume he was killed by the armed men. But why is he covered in vines? To hide the body? Of course, the answer is much more sinister, and while the premise sounds ridiculous on paper, it plays out quite creepily in the movie. And that’s not a pun on creeping vines, though it could be.
It’s a horror movie staple to put several people in a situation where their fate is sealed, and watch how they deal with it. Can they escape? We’ve things similar to this in Creepshow 2, in the sequence titled “The Raft.” Based on a Stephen King story, a bunch of teenagers swim out to skinny dip from a raft in a lake, only to find something in the water… this is sort of a mix between that, and The Woods, another decent horror movie by Lucky McKee that involved sinister shrubbery. While that movie was good fun, set at a New England boarding school, this one is a lot more horrifying. We soon learn that the natives have good reason to keep people away from the pyramid. The reveals are done slowly, and the language barrier is put to full effect. The tourists think they are being warned from one thing, when it is actually another; though when the armed men kill one of their own, lights begin to go off. The film is certainly gory in parts and there is a lot of disturbing imagery when they realize what the place’s curse really is.
The characters stand out just enough, and behave believably, always a plus in the horror genre. No one will panic and go running into traps. The dire nature of their situation will weigh heavily on their minds, and when someone goes unhinged, I could really sympathize. The mood of dread is absolute, and when they do formulate a plan for escape, it is a desperate last measure. The Ruins is not a classic or a masterpiece, but it does craft the right mood for a horror movie. The “monster,” as it were, could be ridiculous if the tone wasn’t right. There’s one scene that reminded me of The Chuckle Patch from “The Magic Garden,” but the rest of the time, I was rooted to my seat. The ending is typical, but getting there is a lot of fun. I’m told the book is a lot better, and I’ll be picking it up.