Friday, December 24, 2010

The Ruins: Between The Earth And Sky

Horror movies thrive on situations in which the protagonists have to run through the dark. Seriously - show me a movie with somebody running through the dark, and it's probably a horror film. The dark is the embodiment of the unknown, which - as I just argued in my last post - is vital to effective horror. I mean, just try to imagine a romantic comedy or period drama in which someone runs through lightless, deserted hallways or across a field in the inky black.

To my mind, this makes what The Ruins accomplishes - horror in the open air and light of day - that much more impressive.

Two couples are having fun on a Mexican beach. Sun, sand, surf, beer, bikinis, the whole bit. Jeff and Amy are the serious, responsible couple. Jeff is going to go off to med school, and Amy's a bit of a wet blanket. She didn't want to come and is being sort of passive-aggressive about it. Stacy and Eric are the wacky, irresponsible couple, here indicated by their willingness to keep their friends waiting while they grab a morning quickie. There's some inter- and intracouple tension along gender lines, and temperament lines. They're trying to enjoy themselves, though. Lots of loaded glances and half-spoken, immediately abandoned arguments. The kind of shittiness that casts a pall over any vacation.

Into this simmering cauldron of pretty much every teens-in-trouble premise ever comes handsome, blonde, German Mathias. He's on vacation with his brother Heinrich and Heinrich's wife. They're busy on an archeological dig at some Mayan ruins. Mathias invites the four to come with him and his friend Dimitri to visit Heinrich the next day, and as usual, Amy is a wet blanket about it, and as usual, gets thoroughly and comprehensively outvoted.  Only the next day, Mathias' ride - some people from the dig - doesn't show up. Mathias can't reach Heinrich. So he decides to hire some transportation to go to the dig site and look for them. He give the two couples an out - this isn't their problem - but they go anyway. Of course they do. It's a long trip, deep into the jungle, and eventually their hired transportation refuses to go any farther. They get a local to take them the rest of the way, and when they reach the dig site, they find a Mayan pyramid, overgrown with a lush, flowering vine, Heinrich's truck sitting abandoned, and no sign of the dig team.

They do, however, find a group of armed Mayans on horseback who won't let them leave the pyramid once they've climbed it. Oddly, they won't approach the group, remaining at a distance, never lowering their guns or bows. The group is forced back to the base of the pyramid, across the fallow ground. The fallow ground, salted so that nothing may grow. A couple of ugly discoveries later, the group gets it. It's not the group that the Mayans are worried about, it's the vine. A vine held at bay by the salted earth.

They're being quarantined on the pyramid.

From here, the movie is an exercise in the crushing inevitable, played out on the small surface of the pyramid. Rations are meager, dehydration and exposure are certain, and the sun and sky press down like a vise. There is no dark, and there is nowhere to run. The open air and light of day feel claustrophobic. The location itself is physically constraining - with a couple of exceptions, you could set this story on the stage and it would lose next to nothing in the translation. And there is the matter of the vine. It grows aggressively, and appears to be carnivorous. There are unfortunate accidents, injuries, and crude attempts at medicine. Grudges and secrets come boiling to the surface - with nowhere to go, the vacationers start to turn on each other. Tempers and resentment flare as their circumstances ratchet tighter and tighter around them. And the vine waits. Waits and grows.  The protagonists do not deserve this. Nobody deserves this. These are people cracking and breaking under merciless strain, and every minute of their time stranded is hard and sharp. My only quibble with the movie is the range of things of which the vine is capable - but to be fair, killer plants are hard to pull off (there's a terrible pun in there somewhere) under the best of circumstances, and nature is full of strangeness in the name of adaptation. To a point, you could almost make the argument that there's nothing special about the vine, that this is all delusion brought on by a terrible situation.

But those are shades of bad, and this is not a movie about shade or nuance. This is bright and brutal, the colors of an ant squirming under the magnifying glass.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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