AJ Burgin wraps her tentacular vines around the classic B-movie horror thrills of The Ruins.
When The Ruins was first being promoted, I was immediately intrigued by the story of tourists leaving their cozy resort in Mexico to go explore some ancient Mayan ruins, only to face unknown terror in the ancient, vine-covered structure. I love vacations, I love ruins, and I LOVE horror. I saw it as soon as I was able and it did not disappoint. The film follows young twenty-somethings Amy, Stacy, Jeff, Eric, Dimitri, and Mathias as they follow a questionable map to some “secret” ruins outside of an isolated Mayan village. Thrilled by the prospect of “experiencing some culture” that is unmarred by other tourists, the group eagerly embarks on their hike, only to discover that some places should remain hidden. While some have argued that the film is just another in a long history of cheesy oh-no-don’t-go-there horror movies, The Ruins is actually a dark meditation on how tourism is an extension of modern colonialism. The paralyzing panic of not being able to communicate with the villagers (who speak neither Spanish nor English) creates an impenetrable linguistic isolation that reverses histories of conquest. The white tourists can speak to each other, despite being from different colonizing countries (the U.S. and Germany); but try as they might, they cannot communicate with the Mayan villagers who surround them with guns, herding them into the deadly ruins. This isolation is the true terror of the film, forcing viewers to confront the lived history of colonialism and to take critical stock of their own participation in its ongoing power through their desire for cheap beach getaways in places like South America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia.
I’m totally fucking with you. The Ruins really is a classic B-horror movie (albeit with a decent budget and cast). And guess what? It’s great.
There really is some intense tourist-as-colonizer stuff, though. Best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are on vacation in Mexico with their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore), when they meet German tourist Mathias. Mathias is leaving the next day to go find his brother, who went to a supposed dig site at this obscure Mayan ruin that doesn’t appear on any maps. Mathias invites the group to join him, providing them with a chance for adventure on a trip that has been spent entirely either pool-side or on the beach, a chance everyone but Amy seems eager to take. These are those young, relatively well-off tourists that many of us love to hate, the ones who spend thousands of dollars to go to another country and only hang out at the hotel with other tourists. On their way to the ruins, they get off a bus and Amy (who we figured out was really into photography when there was a camera sitting by her at the pool in the opening scene) takes pictures of young Mexican children, delighting at them as objects to observe but never actually interacting them. When the group wanders into the ominous jungle and the film’s dramatic tension starts to build, signaling to viewers that danger is just around the corner, all I can think is, “I’m so excited to watch these people die.”
When I first watched The Ruins, I think I had a much more neutral stance on the death scenes. I might have even rooted for them to live. Ten years later, and I really had zero feelings of sympathy. Worse, I definitely rooted for them to die. (Well, not Dimitri. But Dimitri was Greek and had darker skin, so the movie didn’t even see making him a real character as necessary. He’s just a prop that gets abruptly shot with an arrow and then with a gun, in the head, to signal that the real “horror” part of the movie is starting.) They were all just so deeply annoying, so the perfect embodiment of the terrible American tourist, that I really did feel like they had it coming. I know schadenfreude is a thing (it’s why I follow the amazing @kidsgettinghurt on Instagram), but the way I reveled in these characters’ deaths felt darker. So much of the dramatic tension in the movie was, for me, just the impatience of waiting for them to get hurt just a little more. Bleed just a little more. Lose their humanity just a little more. For the whole movie, I could feel malice coursing through my veins. Maybe that’s what the movie is actually about: the strangling effects of judgment and ill-will, taking hold in our hearts and brains and, like crawling vines, strangling our sense of compassion until OH SHIT. I FORGOT TO TELL YOU. It’s vines. That’s the untold horror. Sentient, carnivorous vines that yearn for human flesh. Yeah.
In The New York Times review of The Ruins, Matt Zoller Seitz takes a blasé attitude towards the movie, and the title of his review kind of sums it all up: “Watch Out for That Malevolent Jungle Vine.” It’s a laughable premise, but it totally works. The vines twitch and shudder in the corner of the frame often enough that you know something is wrong as soon as you see the overgrown pyramid, but director Carter Smith holds off on the big reveal until much later. The effect is one long, drawn-out “ick” feeling. Particularly effective are the (multiple) scenes of the vines invading wounds, crawling their way into the blood supply to drink like little chlorophyll-based vampires. The characters then take their turns cutting and pulling the vampire vines out, only to have them crawl and twist angrily like a disgusting, blood-covered green tapeworm. It’s gross and, again, it’s awesome watching these precious little tourists get slowly eaten. The vines seem content to toy with their prey for much of the movie, creeping into their wounds at night and growing only unusually quickly, not supernaturally. It isn’t until much later in the movie that the vines are like, “Surprise! We can totally just legit grab you and pull you into our leafy abyss. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Some might argue that the movie fails because “Why don’t the vines just eat them and be done with it?” but I think it’s much, much more disturbing to see an evolved vine that not only wants to eat the people it encounters, but also toy with them. This is just the plant version of the Hirogen from Star Trek: Voyager. Their pleasure isn’t in the final feed, but in the psychological torture, the hunt.
The Ruins is even more clever than people (myself included, to be honest) give it credit for. The first real “reveal” moment of the movie is when Amy and Stacy realize that the ringing cell phone they’ve been searching for is actually the flowers on the vines mimicking a cell phone, luring them closer. Mimicry is one of the vines’ primary hunting strategies, which sets up all kind of creepy shit later on, especially when Stacy has a full-on meltdown and starts screaming, only to have the flowers all around them start screaming back at them all, in a pretty accurate replica of Stacy’s own voice. The vines use mimicry to inflict psychological pain on their captives, creating the false hope of the cell phone, playing them against each other through whispered innuendos (of, you guessed it, sex), and finally mocking them by holding a(n auditory) mirror up to their fear. Yeah, it’s a ridiculous vine, but it’s still freaking cool. There’s also a nice little piece of foreshadowing I hadn’t noticed before. When the group is initially approaching the ruins and are all still in good spirits, Eric mimics Stacy. Only five minutes later, the group hears the “cell phone” for the first time (though they remain unaware of its true origins until much later).
Look, I’m not saying it’s a brilliant movie. Honestly, I’m not even saying it’s good, technically speaking. But if you, like me, enjoy fun horror movies with decent special effects (for their time), then you have to watch The Ruins. One of the most frequent complaints about it is that the original novel, by Scott Smith, is so much better. Scott Tobias of AV Club says, “In compressing the novel down to a sloppy abridgment, the film fails to capture the eerie portent of its setting.” FIRST, people seem to attribute the abridgment (and lackluster character development) to director Carter Smith, but guess what, suckers? Scott Smith wrote the screenplay himself! The original author made these narrative choices (some apparently before he’d even finished the novel). Also, WOW, Tobias. I’m, like, so blown away by the originality of a review that argues that a movie isn’t as good as the book that came before it. Like. Just wow. I’ve never heard that before.
On Rotten Tomatoes, user Clayton M. gave The Ruins a whopping 1.5 stars. “Can’t anyone make a horror movie anymore without people falling down when they run, or doing things nobody would ever do?” he asks. I don’t know, Clayton. It must be real nice to be such a strong athletic guy with an amazing source of balance that allows you to steadily sprint through a jungle wearing FLIP FLOPS without stumbling a little. And, to be fair, that falling scene doesn’t even end in Amy’s demise. She still gets away (unfortunately).
My biggest gripe with The Ruins is the ending. Amy gets away, but in classic selfish-Amy style, she heads straight for the village, knowing full well that Mayans she snuck past were holding them all there so that they wouldn’t spread carnivorous vine spores. The movie ends with her riding off into the distance, safely in the Jeep she conveniently had access to. There IS a deleted scene/alternate ending that cuts to a graveyard with a whistling groundskeeper. He hears something whistling back at him, goes to investigate, and finds a little whistling flower, growing on a vine that is winding its way out of the ground and up a headstone that bears Amy’s name and year of death (2008). I like that ending a little better than the theatrical release, but COME ON, AMY. YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED IN THE JUNGLE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.