The first scenes of The Ruins look like
an especially gorgeous episode of some MTV show about rich white
people with nothing better to do but lounge in the sun all day. Shot
in richly colored widescreen by D.P. Darius Khondji, these are
ostensibly early character moments, establishing the tendencies of
these two young couples, freewheeling girls and two boys, one uptight
and one less so. But director Carter Smith has Khondji linger on the
women’s bodies, pale in the Mexican sun, attractively toned and —
as the horror fans who will gravitate to a movie like The Ruins will
intuitively understand — fragile in frightening ways. These are the
beautiful people, and by the end of The Ruins we’ll have spent a lot
of time watching them go downhill. Their skin will be mottled with
the stains of blood and grime, their clothing filthy from sweat and
dirt (and something green), their hungry and terrified bodies ravaged
not just by stress and dehydration, but by the immediate threat of
alien invasion – by something alive that breaks the skin and then
scoots underneath, tearing around your subcutaneous regions like tiny hyperactive moles making tunnels under the grass.
In the 1970s and 1980s, this kind of stuff was the bread and butter of a whole generation of horror-film directors who understood how disturbing it can become to be trapped in a human body. The grand master of body horror is David Cronenberg, of course, and his various nightmares can be understood as stand-ins
for venereal disease, aging, schizophrenia or dementia. But George Romero’s zombie movies traded on dark-comic ideas about what might happen to a body after it dies, and even John Carpenter’s Halloween, with its depiction of a killer who punishes promiscuity (Carpenter swears this is unintentional, but many of his viewers read the film differently) by puncturing the body over and over again, trades in a kind of anxiety over how we use our bodies, and the things that can happen to them.
In direct comparison, The Ruins is weak sauce. The ordeal on screen is grueling, yes, but the film never invites a meaningful psychological or metaphorical reading of the squicky stuff (unless there’s something hidden in there about the effects of and/or the American war on drugs, which seems like reaching although the visual characteristics of the film’s killer vegetation sort of suggest marijuana and the movie itself feels like kind of a downer). Smith doesn’t even go for the everybody-hates-an-American subtext that films like Hostel and Turistas trade in, although The Ruins is arguably xenophobic as hell. When one of the girls complains early on that the blended ice in a margarita pitcher could be laden with disease, she’s probably incorrect – but later events involving a different kind of contagion strongly suggest that she was onto something after all. At one point Eric, the film’s confident but not terribly sensible lead character declares, as an argument for staying put and waiting for rescue rather than planning an escape, “Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear,” and even though nobody calls him on that bullshit it’s clear that we in the audience are meant to understand that his awkward hubris is a harbinger of desperate times.
And on that score, The Ruins delivers. I haven’t read the source novel by Scott Smith, but the movie is an appalling but perversely attractive nightmare about four convincingly ordinary people, one bad idea, and a gory misadventure that just keeps getting worse and worse despite Eric’s sense of first-world entitlement. There’s one great sick joke involving the distinctive ring of a cell phone inside the ruins themselves and a whole bunch of squirm-inducing set-ups and pay-offs involving excruciating physical discomfort. I’ve seen enough graphic horror movies over the last 30 years or so to take elaborate gross-outs in stride, but I ended up averting my gaze at least once. (It was during a scene involving a broken back, a stretcher, and a short rope.) Not a classic — just an effective diversion for people who like mean little movies about bad ways to go. B