Conventional wisdom says that the horror genre tends to work in cycles; in other words, whenever there’s a successful and original horror movie it gets followed by a whole lot of earnest ripoffs. After Halloween we got a whole lot of masked killer movies, after The Ring we got a million remakes of Japanese horror movies involving ghost kids, and after Saw the wave of so called “torture porn” movies emerged. The existence of the recent horror film The Ruins suggests that we are now beginning a wave of movies that are ripping off the 2006 cave-dwelling creature feature The Descent.
As The Descent was only a moderate commercial success, I doubt this is going to be as widespread a wave as the above examples, but the resemblance between the two movies is no coincidence. Both are about groups of young people who find themselves stuck in a dark place populated by mysterious creepy-crawlies that have apparently been there for centuries. While the all woman group of spelunkers in their thirties was a relatively creative set up for The Descent, The Ruins goes the more predictable route for its group: American college students on vacation in Mexico.
While vacationing the students hear about an ancient Mayan ruin that isn’t even on the map and decide to go visit it, what could possibly go wrong with that plan? Once they get there they are greeted by a bunch of angry villagers carrying bows and pistols. The locals start shouting at them in a native dialect that the students can’t understand; suddenly the angry villager shoots one of the students dead and the rest run into the ruins for cover. But they soon find that what’s waiting for them in the ruins is much more frightening than what is waiting outside.
There are as many as six people here, why such a larger group? So there will be more people to kill off of course. Killing people off is the main goal here. Like The Descent, this isn’t quite as gore dependant as something like Saw, but it also isn’t afraid at all to let the plasma flow once things start going wrong. It does however venture into Hostel territory during one gratuitously sadistic scene involving an amputation, though it may have been a bit more restrained theatrically than it was in the unrated version I saw.
The Ruins is definitely a well photographed movie, cinematographer Darious Khondiji is able to give the whole film a nice orange-ish glow, though I do wish that director Carter Smith had been a little more careful with the angles as the film tends to over use close-ups. I also rather liked the locations that were used; apparently the entire film was shot in Australia, which surprised me as the scenery did convincingly look like Mexico.
As a whole this is a set up for a pretty good thriller were it not for two fatal flaws, the first being that the characters are completely stock. While I’m no fan of Eli Roth’s Hostel, it did at least manage to give its characters some degree of personality and individuality; they weren’t three dimensional by any means, but at least I got to know them somewhat and care if they lived or died. Here however the young and the damned are completely indistinguishable kids that only exist to provide cannon fodder for the director.
The second fatal flaw comes when the film’s big twist emerges, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that it becomes very clear very early that each and every one of these kids is doomed, there’s no chance for any of them to survive. As soon as this becomes clear any suspense the film could have built is flushed right down the toilet, with no chance of survival the film becomes an exercise in delaying the inevitable, the question goes from being “will they survive?” to “how painfully will they die?” and that’s sort of a sadistic goal if you ask me. Some may argue that this isn’t supposed to be a suspense movie, that the twist turns this into a drama about human nature. I don’t know if that was the filmmaker’s intent, but if it was then its attempt at drama is undermined by problem A: the boring and indistinguishable characters.
I’m probably underselling the movie to a certain degree, the movie may be derivative and somewhat pointless, but it at least isn’t particularly boring. If you’re looking for a contemporary horror movie you could probably do a lot worse than The Ruins, but low standards can only take a movie so far.
** out of four