Vines have always freaked me out a little. They don’t just grow. They climb. They snake their way up the sides of houses and into rain gutters looking for water. They can be trained, for God’s sake; they can be coaxed into covering a wall or a fence. They can get into just about anything, as any homeowner or gardener can tell you. They slither around blindly but intelligently, and someday they will develop a taste for blood, and come for you in the night. Vines: I don’t trust the goddamn things.
Vines are the villains in The Ruins, a gory, wince-inducing horror film based on a bestseller by Scott Smith (he also wrote the script), whose previous novel A Simple Plan was adapted ten years ago by Sam Raimi. That film was a frosted film noir; this one concerns blood sacrifice, amputation, and a character who begins to carve a taco-sized chunk of skin off her thigh. Why? The vines. Four college kids (Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey) are vacationing in Cancun when they hear about an uncharted Mayan temple from a fellow tourist (Joe Anderson). They find the temple, only to discover a hostile group of locals who shoot one of the guys tagging along with the group. Why? Because the guy touched the vines.
Should I tell you more about the vines? No, they’re best left for you to discover, particularly the way they lure people to them. The surviving explorers are trapped atop the temple with no food and less than a day’s worth of water. They can’t leave, or the Mayans will kill them. They can’t stay, or the vines will worm their way into any open wound or orifice. These vines, I assume, have developed a craving for blood, perhaps from various on-site human sacrifices over the centuries. They will squirm around inside you, visible under the skin, and drive you crazy enough to pick up something sharp and start hacking at yourself to get them out.
One could argue that my thing about vines made The Ruins a far more effective horror movie for me than for most others (the movie is getting ridiculed everywhere, and it opened at an unimpressive #5 at the box office; between this and Doomsday, it’s a cold atmosphere lately for inexpensive throwback horror). First-time feature director Carter Smith (no relation to Scott), lucky enough to work with ace cinematographer Darius Khondji, creates a sense of sun-baked menace and dread; sometimes things are scarier when seen in stark daylight. Of the cast, the young women are memorably, believably traumatized; the young men are a bit blank. We know a little about the couple played by Tucker and Malone (he’s a med student, she’s disappointed he’s going to school thousands of miles away and tends to get drunk and loosey-goosey) and practically nothing about the couple played by Ashmore and Ramsey, so the latter couple’s fates don’t move us as they should — perhaps Scott Smith’s novel picks up the slack.
Other than that, The Ruins is a short, sharp shock in an era of torture porn, PG-13 ghost stories, and slasher remakes. It puts likable (if sketchy) characters in a ghastly situation and watches them deteriorate, and delivers several uniquely creepy moments. It isn’t one of the brightest lights in horror-film history, but it does its job remorselessly and well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to take care of with a weed-whacker.