It’s pretty clear that author Scott Smith had Hollywood in mind when he wrote his book “The Ruins.” The novel played like a screenplay written in prose form, and now Smith has personally penned the big screen adaptation, which arrives just a year after the book’s publication. The author, whose brilliant “A Simple Plan” was transferred masterfully to the screen by Sam Raimi ten years ago, finds a little less luck in this adaptation from first-timer Carter Smith.
There’s no way I can review The Ruins with complete objectivity. The fact is that I read the book less than a year ago. There’s no way for me to un-read it. Watching the movie, I found it impossible not to hearken back to the source material. People who are unfamiliar with this story on the page may be more forgiving of certain things than I am. It’s just that when a film version of a best seller leaves out so much of what made the tale work, you can’t help but be somewhat distracted.
For the record, I didn’t think “The Ruins” was great. Yes, it was a page-turner and, yes, it absolutely had its share of unsettling moments. It was also a really taut horror story that jumped the shark about 2/3 of the way through. (The film thankfully avoids this flaw by downplaying the one particular element that I found silly, involving mimicked voices.) In spite of some clumsy elements, Scott Smith nevertheless delivered an effective horror tale; I was unnerved by it even as I was decrying its occasional campiness.
The plot is simple: a group of college-age kids vacation in Mexico and decide to visit an ancient ruin they’ve heard about – one that, naturally, is off the map. When they get there, a group of armed natives stands at the base and won’t let them leave. They are trapped on top of these ruins, with little food or water, and with a mysterious man-eating vine coming after them. Jonathan Tucker plays Jeff, the former boy scout/med student who assumes the role of leader in a crisis. His girlfriend Amy (Jena Malone) is slightly sexually permissive, a trait that was far more important in the novel than it is here. Along with them are Amy’s somewhat less-uninhibited friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and her boyfriend, the laid-back Eric (Shawn Ashmore).
There is also a young Russian guy, Mathias (Joe Anderson), who falls down a shaft, awakening the creeping vine in the process. With nowhere to go (the natives will shoot them if they try to leave), the gang is stranded with little hope of rescue. Things, of course, go from bad to worse, as the vine starts attacking and trying to get under everyone’s skin - literally - which allows for some admittedly skin-crawling moments.
Although “The Ruins” felt like a natural for the cinematic treatment, the film doesn’t reach the same level of queasy dread that Smith brought to the page. Events that were absolutely excruciating in the book are glossed over here. For instance, one of the characters needs to have a surgical procedure done. In Smith’s novel, the scene went on and on and on, capturing every ounce of horror one could imagine from needing an emergency operation when there was nobody qualified around to perform it. In contrast, this scene in the movie lasts maybe 90 seconds, and it’s handled more discreetly than it should have been. One of the book’s horror centerpieces is thus essentially neutralized.
The book also established the fact that these characters were trapped on the ancient ruins for a long time. Part of its terror came from the fact that help never seemed to arrive, and therefore the characters were trapped indefinitely, or until they died. There was intrinsic horror in knowing that they were going to die a horrible death eventually. I think the movie takes place over about two or three days, so you lose a lot of the impact of their dramatic wait for an inevitably gruesome end.
There are lots of other scenes that seemed rushed through. The Ruins, with its short 90-minute running time, could have drawn out the terror a lot more. With a film like this, we ought to be squirming in our seats the entire time. As is often the case with modern horror films, I was reminded of Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. That picture ran two hours, and very little happened in the first half. However, Scott used the occasion to build an increasing sense of dread. You knew something bad was going to happen, and the longer it didn’t, the more you feared it. The Ruins needed that kind of charge. At times, the imagery in the book was so uncomfortable that I just wanted to stop reading and slam it shut. I didn’t get a comparable feeling from the movie, and I felt like I should have.
To be fair, some things do play better on screen than on the page, like the vine attack that occurs when Stacy and Amy venture down into the shaft. Today’s CGI effects allow that concept to become gloriously, morbidly visualized. It’s one of the best scare scenes I’ve seen in a while. Some of the other vine attacks also feel more alive visually than they did in print. I had a hard time visualizing some of the stuff in the book because Smith’s writing tended to get a little vague during those passages, and the movie’s depiction really helped.
But what’s up with that ending? I won’t spoil it here, but for whatever its flaws, the book had an ending that was justifiably disturbing. The film changes it and, subsequently, waters down a major part of what made this story unsettling. But I probably sound like I’m griping too much, turning into one of those people who like to whine about how “the book was better.” (Exactly the thing I never want to become.) As a movie, The Ruins is passable entertainment. It has a few shocks and scares, and it fulfills that strange desire horror fans have to see something truly messed up and disgusting. It’s just weird: the movie fixed the flaws in the book, but screwed up the stuff that was most effective on the page. Go figure.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Ruins is rated R for strong violence and gruesome images, language, some sexuality and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Ruins
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