The Ruins (Unrated) DVD

"The Ruins is one half a very juicy "slow burn" and one half a blood-soaked psychological horror-fest that feels a lot like something David Cronenberg would have directed 20 years ago."

Review by Scott Weinberg

Today's subject: The Ruins! As usual, I'll share a bit of my original (theatrical run) review of the flick at hand, and then I'll go over my thoughts after a second spin (with a special eye on what makes this version "unrated") and finish up with the supplemental goodies. And this was a fun assignment indeed.

Well, not exactly "fun," as The Ruins is pretty much the bleakest and most unapologetically downbeat studio horror film since David Cronenberg's The Fly. And let's give it up to Mr. Stuart Cornfeld, who must be a gorehound, since he produced both of those movies. (And a pat on the back to Ben Stiller for producing this very effective horror film through his own production company. The flick sure didn't make a lot of cash at the box office, but it's a damn good terror tale that should enjoy a rather healthy shelf life.)

Sort of a cross between the 1950s era monster movies and the decidedly more modern style of graphic nastiness, The Ruins starts out on very familiar footing before settling in with a slyly unique take on some very ... agricultural material. The plot is a simple thing: A group of six youths (two American couples, a German and a Greek) head off into the Mexican jungle in search of a missing traveler. It doesn't take long before they stumble across "the ruins," a massive Mayan temple that's crawling with forbidden foliage. Their arrival is met with much unpleasantness: A group of natives force our young adventurers to climb atop the ruins -- and if they come down, they'll be killed. But WHY? That's the burning question that viewers will demand from director Carter Smith and screenwriter Scott B. Smith: WHY do these natives hold the tourists captive? WHAT is it about the ruins that strikes such fear into everyone's heart? And WHERE is that missing friend, anyway?

To their credit, director Smith (a first-timer!) and screenwriter Smith (adapting from his own novel) keep the answers hidden -- up until the appropriate time, that is. If you've read the book, then you know full well where the danger is really coming from (hint: it's not the natives), but the movie (wisely) assumes you haven't read the book, and therefore The Ruins is one half a very juicy "slow burn" and one half a blood-soaked psychological horror-fest that feels a lot like something David Cronenberg would have directed 20 years ago. Because while The Ruins definitely has horror coming from "external" directions, the bulk of the creepiest material deals with the internal: Body horror, self-mutilation, the primal fear of parasitic invasion, and all that bleakly fascinating jazz.

And let's hear it for a straight-faced (semi-)big budget studio horror movie that arrives with an actual pedigree. In addition to Carter Smith's confident direction and Scott Smith's no-nonsense screenplay, the flick was shot by the fantastic Darius Khondji, scored (and scored well) by veteran Graeme Revell, and (really briskly) cut together by editor Jeff Betancourt. Hell, even the actors are surprisingly good, and you don't always NEED solid acting in a horror movie. It's like an actual bonus that Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey, and Shawn Ashmore round out the ensemble; on paper, these could be paper-thin caricatures, but the cast does an excellent job of selling the set-up, the premise, and the inevitable geysers of gooey gore. And once all the morbid mayhem starts flowing, don't be surprised if you find yourself actually caring about these four poor souls. (Special note about the gore: Ewww. And I mean that as a compliment.)

The Ruins is a horror flick that wants to shock you as much as it does scare you, which means that some of the most chilling moments are presented in full daylight, in such a matter- of-fact fashion that you almost need a few extra seconds to accept what you're seeing. It's both craftily creepy (in a subtle way) and powerfully visceral (in a kick-ass way), plus it delivers its payload in a slick and efficient 91-minute burst of nastiness. The Ruins might not be the best "studio horror flick" in recent memory (that'd be The Mist, if you want my opinion), but it's an impressively harsh, unexpectedly dark, and admirably expeditious little terror tale. And yes, to answer the Golden Question: If you liked the book, I think you'll like the movie. Aside from a few alterations (which I'd actually call improvements), the flick and the book are pretty darn identical. (Which is good news because the book's pretty darn solid.)

--So now after watching the movie a second time, I'm just really impressed with A) how slick and quickly this flick moves, B) the work of the cast, and C) the powerfully candid way in which the violence is portrayed. As mentioned on the director's commentary (more than once), it's pretty tough to scare an audience when most of your movie takes place in broad daylight, but the filmmakers knew how to hold back the creeping evil until just the right moment. And once The Ruins has laid down the set-up and started in with the nasty, dang this is one harsh, dark, bleak piece of genre filmmaking. It's like the diametric opposite of Prom Night.

Regarding the "unrated edition," well, the ending is a little bit different in that it robs us of some ambiguity, but still falls on this side of bleak. Call it a cop-out ending in comparison to the novel's final pages, but I still think the movie's ending works best for a movie. ("Adaptation" being a word worth remembering.) You'll also find a little extra bloodshed in some of the flick's more intense moments -- but since practically nobody went to see the poor movie in its theatrical run, I'm guessing all the gore will be new to you. Suffice to say that the new version adds a few extra squirms without overdoing it in the gristle department. If there's anything else that's new besides the slightly different ending and a few additional spurts, I didn't notice them.

Moving over to the goodies department, you'll be pleased to know that DreamWorks has done a fine job with this package. The film is presented in a sterling anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio delivered in Dolby Digital 5.1. (Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French.) Supplementarily (not a real word), we start off with a low-key but quite excellent audio commentary between first-time (!) director Carter Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt. The pair keeps the info flowing very smoothly, and Betancourt has obviously done a commentary before: He almost assumes the role of interviewer when the track gets slow, which gives he and Smith plenty of Ruin-y stuff to talk about. Next up are a a trio of featurettes: Making the Ruins (14:23 -- cast & crew on-set interviews), Creeping Death (15:04 -- the creation of the violent vines!), and Building the Ruins (6:08 -- production design). We're also offered three deleted scenes, a look at the original theatrical ending, and (yes, another) alternate finale. Also the trailer for The Ruins and a bunch of other previews. All told, one fine disc for the horror fans!