"The Ruins" a tense and squirmy nightmare

The Ruins (2008) 
91 min., rated R. 

"The Ruins" is only stock in its advertising and initial setup that of "Wolf Creek" and "Turistas," where American travelers become the hunted in a foreign land. Otherwise, don't look for any sightseeing hot spots in this intense, squirm-inducing horror flick. Off the top, a woman cowering in a dark hole, screaming bloody murder for help, sets the bleak tone for the nightmare that ensues. Lounging around the hotel pool with margaritas, four twenty-somethings—best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and their boyfriends, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore)—are on an exotic vacation in Mexico. They meet a friendly German traveler named Mathias (Joe Anderson) and idiotically decide to head out to an archeological site in the jungle where his brother has gone missing. The site is, naturally, off the map, which should be a tip-off to these American kids, but nope. Once they step foot in the area around an ancient Mayan temple, they are cornered by tribesmen with arrows and guns who refuse to let them leave. Worse, they must stay atop the ruins with no-service cell phones, a dwindling supply of food and water...and some sort of carnivorous vine that attacks and infects the five friends. At least it's not a psychotic psycho knocking them off one by one, right?

Move over "Little Shop of Horrors," this is the Killer Plant Movie if there ever was one. Based on a page-turning novel by Scott Smith ("A Simple Plan"), who wrote the screenplay himself, and directed by Carter Smith (no relation to the author/screenwriter), "The Ruins" keeps the novel's queasy, disturbing vision intact most of the way. It plays out more grimly and a lot less ridiculous than it reads, while delivering viscera and bloody gore, as well as a bit of paranoia and the ugly side of human nature to post a threat and mount the tension. Part of the reason for that is the film has the courage of its own convictions for a contemporary R-rated horror film without watering down any of the characters' demises and doesn't exploit gore just for gore's sake like the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies.

The characters aren't particularly deep or always as intelligent as one would like them to be, but the "villain" is quite threatening and the plot carefully keeps things simple enough to not get bogged down in silly exposition. For a film like this, the acting is also quite unexpectedly strong. Out of the attractive cast, Jena Malone and a particularly courageous Laura Ramsey act with emotional intensity and empathy. Kudos to the effectively icky sound effects and realistically gruesome makeup, with an amputation and self-inflicting cutting as gross-out set-pieces, but some of the distracting CG enhancement could have been lessened. A bigger criticism is the ending. Instead of furthering its unsparing vise-like grip, the film ends as an anticlimax with a last shot that's just a cheap setup for a sequel that will probably never come. Nevertheless, "The Ruins" should satisfy those looking for dark, solid shocks and thrills, and perhaps a reason to never be a botanist.

Grade: B