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Review: The Ruins

April 9th, 2008

The Ruins
The Ruins movie poster


These days it’s hard to make a good, scary horror movie. Every thing is either a remake of an Asian film or some kind of torture porn. Whatever happened to the good old, creepy monster movie?

Well I just came back from watching The Ruins and let me tell you, this is an intense and horrifying movie. Based on the novel by Scott Smith, who also wrote the superb book A Simple Plan as well as the subsequent Oscar nominated film adaptation,The Ruins is about four Americans vacationing in Cancun who meet up with a German tourist to visit an ancient Mayan temple off the beaten path that’s not in the tourist guidebooks. And from that simple situation unfolds a nightmarish chain of events that’s just the right proportion of suspense and gore.

The Ruins is a whole lot smarter and more suspenseful than your average horror movie. Fashion photographer turned director Carter Smith does an excellent job of staying out of the way and letting the situation take center stage. While I won’t reveal the monster in The Ruins, it’s sufficient to say that it’s something both a little unexpected and a bit ordinary which makes it that much more effective.

While I have not yet read the book, I came across a review of the book by horror master Stephen King that does a good job of summarizing the movie as well. Stephen King wrote:

When I heard that Scott Smith was publishing a new novel this summer, I felt the way I did when my kids came in an hour or two late from their weekend dates: a combination of welcoming relief (thank God you’re back) mingled with exasperation and anger (where the hell have you been?). Well, it’s only a book, you say, and maybe that’s true, but Scott Smith is a singularly gifted writer, and it seems to me that the twelve years between his debut–the cult smash A Simple Plan–and his return this summer with The Ruins is cause for exasperation, if not outright anger. Certainly Smith, who has been invisible save for his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the film version of A Simple Plan, will have some ‘splainin to do about how he spent his summer vacation. Make that his last twelve summer vacations.

But enough. The new book is here, and the question devotees of A Simple Plan will want answered is whether or not this book generates anything like Plan’s harrowing suspense. The answer is yes. The Ruins is going to be America’s literary shock-show this summer, doing for vacations in Mexico what Jaws did for beach weekends on Long Island. Is it as successful and fulfilling as a novel? The answer is not quite, but I can live with that, because it’s riskier. There will be reviews of this book by critics who have little liking or understanding for popular fiction who’ll dismiss it as nothing but a short story that has been bloated to novel length (I’m thinking of Michiko Kakutani, for instance, who microwaved Smith’s first book). These critics, who steadfastly grant pop fiction no virtue but raw plot, will miss the dazzle of Smith’s technique; The Ruins is the equivalent of a triple axel that just misses perfection because something’s wrong with the final spin.

It’s hard to say much about the book without giving away everything, because the thing is as simple and deadly as a leg-hold trap concealed in a drift of leaves…or, in this case, a mass of vines. You’ve got four young American tourists–Eric, Jeff, Amy, and Stacy–in Cancun. They make friends with a German named Mathias whose brother has gone off into the jungle with some archeologists. These five, plus a cheerful Greek with no English (but a plentiful supply of tequila), head up a jungle trail to find Mathias’s brother…the archaeologists…and the ruins.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad, according to the old saying, and in this case; what’s waiting in the jungle isn’t just bad, it’s horrible. Most of The Ruins‘s 300-plus pages is one long, screaming close-up of that horror. There’s no let-up, not so much as a chapter-break where you can catch your breath. I felt that The Ruins did draw on a trifle, but I found Scott Smith’s refusal to look away heroic, just as I did in A Simple Plan. It’s the trappings of horror and suspense that will make the book a best seller, but its claim to literature lies in its unflinching naturalism. It’s no Heart of Darkness, but at its suffocating, terrifying, claustrophobic best, it made me think of Frank Norris. Not a bad comparison, at that.

One only hopes Mr. Smith won’t stay away so long next time.

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