The Ruins (Blu-ray)
Directed by Carter Smith
Watching college kids try to solve life's problems always has some degree of entertainment value, particularly when "life's problems" revolve around a flesh-eating plant living in the ruins of an uncharted section of Mexico.
As unlikely as it might seem, though, this creepy little flick lingers in the mind and grows on a person, no pun intended.
All the standard horror/slasher flick elements are in place. There's the hot blonde chick, the librarian-hot brunette chick, the blonde's granola boyfriend, the brunette's med-student boyfriend, and, of course, a German they meet poolside at their Mexican resort.
With vacation winding down, the German presents the American kids with an opportunity to visit some Aztec ruins that can't be found on any map. Doing so would allow them to return home with amazing stories to share about both loads of alcohol on the beach and culture. His brother went there yesterday with a hot archaeologist chick. Oh, and don't be dissuaded by the fact that they haven't returned yet; they must be having a sehr gut time.
With the goal of getting back before “make your own taco” time, these intrepid, fortified, and fairly naïve kids take off for an adventure that Indiana Jones would rate as pure child’s play. At least when they refer to the "crazy Greeks" they're talking about a couple guys from Greece, not the frat and sorority variety.
Well, as it happens, one staple that is missing in The Ruins is the mad slasher. This is, as it turns out, a horror flick with a different spin on the horror. When they arrive at the ruins, they are almost immediately goaded to the top of a small step pyramid by what would appear to be a band of vicious renegades who have no qualms about shooting people right smack in the forehead, whether the victim is a teenager or a young boy.
The gun-toters are simply doing their job: protecting everybody else. Don't bother asking why there aren't any "PROHIBIDO EL PASO" signs.
At the top of the pyramid, the group of five finds a tent and some odds and ends, undoubtedly a sign that the German's brother and archaeological friend are somewhere nearby. And coming from deep in the bowels of the pyramid is the unmistakable ring of a cell phone.
Much like Brett never should have gone looking for Jones the cat in Alien, these kids never should've answered the phone.
With the kids cornered at the top of the pyramid, things rapidly go to Hell in a Menudo lunchbox.
The gang's all here... for now.
Even without a mad slasher in a hockey mask, an ugly orange-and-green sweater, or whatever, there's plenty of blood and guts in The Ruins. This one toys with the fine line that can exist between "man's inhumanity to man" and compassion, most notably during a scene of a gruesome makeshift leg amputation. (But, come on now, not even MacGyver would perform an amputation with only a rock, a belt, and a frying pan.)
Given that debate between mercy and madness serves as an underlying theme here, with the students struggling to survive and stay sane under the blazing sun while they try to figure a way out of their predicament, The Ruins is oddly watchable. The fun factor is compounded (or for some, confounded) by scenes of graphic disgust that make it challenging to not look away from the screen.
It's also good to see the kids turn out to be moderately interesting; it's not really a case of hoping the granola (Shawn Ashmore, X-Men) gets nixed next. Even so, it gets a little silly when Stacy, the blonde (Laura Ramsey, The Covenant), gives him a handjob in that tent atop the pyramid, with Amy, the brunette (Jena Malone, Into the Wild), subjected to their moaning from the vantage point of the next sleeping bag.
Mercifully, those antics are kept to a minimum and director Carter Smith, in his feature debut, stays focused on ratcheting up the tension and pulling some really good performances from his cast, particularly Ramsey and Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) as Mathias, the German.
The Ruins Blu-ray offers a surprisingly decent collection of supplemental materials.
Making the Ruins is a good 14-minute featurette that includes tidbits about the director's background in photography, the desire to film outdoors (in Australia), and differences between the book and the movie. Even Ben Stiller himself drops by for some comments in the capacity of executive producer.
Creeping Death is a highly entertaining and informative 15-minute look at the ridiculous amount of detail given to the vinery and the painful accuracy of the artificial limbs. Really cool.
Building the Ruins provides a fairly in-depth (in 6 minutes) look at Grant Major's production design. By the way, Major also worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
All of the above featurettes are presented in high-definition. Very nice.
Next up, there's a collection of roughly 10 minutes worth of deleted scenes, with an optional commentary track from director Carter Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt.
At the ruins.
The three deleted scenes are ho-hum and it's understandable they were cut because they would've been a drag on the movie's pacing. The set also includes the movie's original theatrical ending, which is virtually identical to the unrated cut's ending, except that it wimps out on a few precious frames that add a more intense, final shock in the unrated cut.
The real treat is the alternate ending, a third ending that is absolutely killer. Why wasn't this one used? Hang on. They explain in the commentary tracks.
And speaking of those commentary tracks, they are fairly standard yack tracks. The feature-length commentary starts off as an impromptu Q&A session, with the editor, Jeff Betancourt, grilling the director, Carter Smith. That interview style and a very light tone continues, more or less, throughout the track. There are a couple spots of silence, at which point the audio level on the film's soundtrack ramps up to fill the void.
There are some interesting tidbits splattered throughout the main feature commentary, including some comments on Ben Stiller's seemingly unlikely involvement. More importantly, though, they comment that after 70 some minutes of Hell, they felt obligated to lighten things up (just a wee tad) for the finale. Well, in the deleted scenes commentary, Smith and Betancourt turn about-face and basically deride the key concept behind the unrated cut"s slightly improved ending. They also dismiss the superior alternate ending as seeming to "come from another movie." Gosh. They sound like people who"ve been too absorbed in the project and who have lost sight of what actually works. In other words, they were thinking too much.
One last nugget on the disc is the original theatrical trailer.
While it's great the supplemental featurettes and the theatrical trailer are presented in high-definition (the deleted scenes are standard definition), there are no Blu-ray exclusive features on this disc.
Picture and Sound
The picture is top-notch, providing a periodically washed-out look that replicates the burning sensation of the pounding sun. At the same time, those dark scenes in the ruins hold up well and the detail of all the vinery is terrific.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is fairly well done, but it does disappoint. Aside from a couple key scenes, there isn’t a heckuva lot of ambient sound coming from the rear channels. There were plenty of opportunities to exploit beachside frivolity and jungle atmospherics, in addition to loads of scenes that could have really entangled home viewers in the protagonists' practically claustrophobic, confining experience atop the ruins with a little more surround in the sound.
While the audio is available only in English, the disc also includes English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
How to Use This Disc
Dig into the movie then be sure to check out the Creeping Death featurette and the alternate ending. Those two are a hoot, the other featurettes and deleted scenes are worth a look depending on how piqued your interest is after the movie. Only die-hard completists need to wade through the audio commentaries.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.