Watching the quick-moving but grueling horror movie The Ruins [my original review is here] on its theatrical release — a bare three months ago! — was an intriguing enough experience that it sent me running immediately to grab a copy of the source novel that author Scott Smith adapted for the screen. Reading the book was somewhat confusing, since the characters’ fates were scrambled on the way to the multiplex and my brain struggled a little bit to keep the movie’s characters at bay as I dug into the novel. But it’s a more satisfying version of the story, owing largely to Smith’s literary tactic of shifting the narrative perspective, round-robin style, from character to character, a virtuoso move that the film (maybe wisely) doesn’t even consider emulating. The book lets you get far enough into the heads of its doomed characters — and telescopes the scope of the action across a long enough period of time — that their actions, and eventual insanity, become more understandable.
There was one thing that seemed odd about the book, and that was the absence of any actual ruins. In the movie, a group of young tourists makes its way off the map and onto the premises of an ancient, vegetation-covered Mayan pyramid. They spend much of the film’s running time trapped on top of the structure, but the shape of the thing is unmistakable whenever it’s seen from the ground. By contrast, Smith’s novel describes only a nondescript hilltop with a hole dug in the ground. As our young protagonists suffer, blocked from heading back into the jungle by a bunch of angry Mayan villagers and tormented atop the hill as much by the story’s sinister villain as by the breakdown of their own sense of manners and civility, they become more and more hostile, and downright venomous, toward each other. Striking that nasty tone is something the book is better at than the film, and it suddenly hit me: the ruins of the title are the characters, the lovely young people who’ve been driven mad and nearly mad and worse by their oppressive antagonist.
It’s a poetic touch, so I had to giggle a little when director Carter Smith, on an engaging audio commentary track recorded with the film’s editor, Jeff Betancourt, congratulated himself on being the only fella associated with the production to realize that a story called The Ruins didn’t have any, y’know, archeological ruins in it. That’s how the Mayan pyramid came to be in the movie. (I was a little misled by this; I thought it might have been an indication that the Mayan villagers keeping watch intended to sacrifice the visitors to appease whatever god the structure had originally honored.) I hold that he missed that particular point, but Carter Smith, a still photographer turned movie director, comes across as a smart, friendly guy, and Betancourt shoots a series of questions at him that keeps the proceedings moving along. He seems to have a serious interest in horror film, and the discussion touches on everything from David Cronenberg to the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which he showed his actors to get them in the proper mood — a combination, presumably, of despair and nausea. (If you’re not familiar with Cannibal Holocaust, just think of it as the old-school horror-nerd version of 2 Girls, 1 Cup.)
The reason I was interested in the Blu-ray Disc was its “unrated” appellation, but I have to admit that, other than a slightly tweaked penultimate scene, I’m not sure I would have noticed a single difference from the theatrical cut of the film, which seemed plenty sick-making on its own. What I did notice is how gleefully and unflinchingly gory The Ruins really is — and it has the distinction among similarly brutal horror films of being set largely outdoors, on a location with bright, often harsh light from overhead. That’s not to say it uses gore as a crutch; this material would be plenty disturbing without resort to its grisliest tactics, but the hamburger quotient makes it an enjoyingly brisk experience. It’s also surprisingly well-performed — everyone hits exactly the right notes, and Smith is obviously skilled at eliciting naturalistic performances from an ensemble. And I can’t say enough about Darius Khondji’s widescreen cinematography, which is rendered in the Blu-ray Disc transfer mostly with the care it deserves. The exterior shots, captured using available light, are at first gorgeous (so much sunlight, so much bare skin) and eventually horrifying (so much sunlight, so much bare skin). A couple of scenes seem to have been the subject of some kind of image processing — noise reduction? — that resulted in mottled backgrounds, but for my money the bulk of the daylight exteriors are as striking a showcase for Blu-ray as anything this side of Ratatouille.
The deleted scenes are interesting. Carter and Betancourt both claim to appreciate and respect the test-screening process, and they explain that it helped them keep the film impressively taut and intense by ruthlessly cutting unnecessary scenes. However, the deleted material featured here is as good as anything else in the film — the scene featuring a cleansing rainstorm is particularly nice — and while it might not have helped at the box office, it’s the kind of character development that could have made the film feel a little less superficial. (Brevity is a virtue, yes, but when your film runs only 93 minutes with credits you can probably afford to stretch out a bit.) A bigger problem is that, with the inclusion here of two different alternate endings, The Ruins now boasts three endings that don’t work. Trying to mitigate the bleakness of the book’s climax, the film just comes up with something that feels half-assed — there’s just no way this story ends on an up note, and the apocalyptic coda (set in a graveyard) that they tried on for size is just too out of step with the rest of the picture. To their credit, both Carter and Betancourt seem to have a healthy appreciation of their film’s problems, discussing their missteps on the commentary track. That’s the good news — The Ruins is a debut feature that does so many things right I’m already looking forward to seeing what kind of creepy thing Carter does next.