There were mixed reviews for this movie among friends and critics, but it’s one of my personal favorites, a regular go-to for a bit of character-driven body horror. The more I watch the movie, the more complicated it gets underneath the rather unoriginal, shiny exterior, which is why I feel The Ruins is seriously worth a horror fan’s time. As a shiny movie, it might also appeal to the non-horror fan, if they have the stomach for it.
Plants are a funny thing to make a villain, and I can see how some people might not go for the idea of carnivorous plants as something that can get your skin crawling, but it’s been a bit of a peripheral fear of mine. One of the shorts in the Creepshow anthology, the one featuring Stephen King as a simple-minded farmer baffled by a meteorite with a gooey interior that causes grass to grow on everything like a fungus has stuck with me for years—hits me again every time the parsley gets overgrown and starts trailing onto the porch.
Forests do get nutrients from death of both flora and fauna; creeping vines can infest and infect a whole grove; the fight for sunlight in rainforests is a brutal one; oils on leaves or thorns can cause serious damage or horrible death, all in the name of self-protection, and all without an as-yet demonstrable consciousness, which isn’t to say that plants don’t respond—which is the freakiest thing that I just said. We’re surrounded by plants, but too often, they’re just scenery or accessory to us, and that’s a mistake.
All that to say that, as much as I love my backyard and adore big trees and roses, I still find plants kind of creepy. So I can get into the mentality of villainous plants more quickly than some people. What can I say? I’m an ideal horror audience. (Not so much on board with the villainous vegetarians, but Trolls 2 is still worth a watch as one of the most awesome terrible movies ever made.)
After a cryptic prologue, The Ruins opens on a bunch of young, pretty twenty-somethings on vacation in Mexico—bikinis, alcohol, sun, sex, all pretty much the accoutrements of a typical horror movie, which is why it’s easy to think The Ruins is going to follow the usual, unoriginal punishing formula. Nothing new to see here, folks. Situation normal; all fucked up.
And as a trope, The Ruins definitely falls under the label of Tourists Behaving Badly. Or, more specifically, American Tourists Behaving Badly, although they’re tagging along behind a couple Germans and Greeks. It’s easy to roll your eyes when they flash money to do The Forbidden Thing, when one of the characters takes pictures of the Cute Locals in their Native Environment, and when the emergent leader of the group declares with absolute, desperate certainty, “This doesn’t happen! Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!” People disappear all the fucking time, man, and not just on vacation. Naive affluent illusions, shattered.
However, though The Ruins works within the framework of a fairly typical twenty-somethings-suffer horror movie, it’s what the screenwriter (same as the author of the original novel, which I plan to read one of these days) and the director did within that framework that’s worth a second glance.
I don’t think The Ruins would have done so well without an exceptional cast. Shawn Ashmore is one of my favorite underrated actors (actually, I’m a fan of both Ashmore twins, and they both have feet in the horror genre). Jonathan Tucker is a familiar face in the genre, and he has a quiet, odd-faced, hard-bodied intensity to him that serves him well. Jena Malone is also a surprising force of nature despite her slim build. Sergio Calderon plays the lead Mayan, and he might be a face you recognize, but you don’t know from where. I think he lends some unexpected gravitas in a role where nothing that he says is understood, but his face and tone speaks volumes. There’s no weak link in the cast, although the script has some weak points that don’t do them any service. One of the best things about this film, though, is that whoever you think the characters are at the beginning, they subvert those expectations by the end, which is the marker of good storytelling.
The basic premise of the movie goes something like this: The tourists visit Mayan ruins that aren’t on any of the maps to meet up with a group of archaeologists. They trespass onto forbidden land and touch the strange vine that seems to grow on the ruins and nothing else. A band of Mayans who apparently protect the area around the ruins quarantines them there. As expected, they’re in the middle of nowhere, no cell service, no sat phone, no airplanes, little expectation of rescue. And they quickly discover that the original archaeologist team is dead and that the vine is responsible.
What follows includes unspoken tensions between the members of the group coming to a head, some brutal decisions about how to take care of the wounded in primitive conditions, and what to do about the vine spore that’s entered into those wounds and coated everyone’s clothes and skin. If you’re a fan of body horror, there’s some good, flinching gore for you, but it’s the human element that keeps the movie grounded in something almost paranoid. Some of the best horror, in my opinion, comes from the lengths we’ll go to when we’re desperate to survive.
I won’t spoil anything about the nature of the vines or the fates of the characters, but it doesn’t disappoint, though the unrated ending beats the theatrical (unrated version also has an extraneous scene, but I can forgive it). In a contest between The Ruins and Cabin Fever about horror getting under your skin, The Ruins beats Cabin hands down.