In Five Words or Less:
Boring title, good movie.
In More than Five Words, with /
In 1998, Sam Raimi adapted Scott Smith’s debut sensation A Simple Plan (1993) for us, and, though a lot of the narrator’s nuances were lost in the compression, still, Smith had written a strong enough dramatic spine that his story survived the transition, and made Paramount some money. Ten years later, now, Ron Howard has adapted Smith’s sophomore novel The Ruins to the screen, and though he didn’t have a Billy Bob Thornton to anchor the cast, still, the finished product is perhaps even more compelling. Not to slight Howard here either, but it’s really Smith that deserves the credit for this, as The Ruins, though a largely ‘internal’ novel (as was A Simple Plan—it was Hank’s desperate rationalizing which led us to identify with him), owes a lot more to Aristotle’s rules of drama than most novels on the shelf: it’s got unity of place (one hill); unity of time (three days); and economy of character (six).
Which, yes, should tell you something.
To back up a bit first. Why would Howard be given this project? Granted, that’s a backwards question—really, it should be, after The Da Vinci Code and Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind, why wouldn’t Howard be given this guaranteed success?—but bear with me for a bit. Because I think it has something to do with marketing, with the image the studio wanted for The Ruins. And of course you only push one image when you’re nervous of another surfacing, right? At which point it becomes revealing to ask why Howard for this project? The answer is Da Vince Code and Cinderella Man and Beautiful Mind, and the rest (save, perhaps, The Missing): he has a reputation for films which don’t traffic in genre; Howard doesn’t slum.
Too, however, The Ruins is a summer movie here—the studio couldn’t ignore that. And what movies are big in the summer? There’s three kinds: Action, Children’s, and Horror. Now if we ask ourselves where on that spectrum The Ruins might fit, we of course eliminate Children’s first, and are left with Action and Horror. At which point you just have to look at the effects budgets of each: where an Action movie will be spending a lot of money on stunts, Horror tends to go broke at the special effects store.
And now you see where I’m going, of course. The alternate title Roger Ebert suggested for The Ruins says it better than I can—Anacondas III: Revenge of the Blood Orchids—though James Berardinelli’s is perhaps more to the point: The Real Cancun, Part 2.
The premise for The Ruins, pretty much, is that somebody’s left the plant from Little Shop of Horrors down on a hill in South America, and some vacationing twenty-somethings stumble onto it. It’s a story pattern which owes more to the conventions of the haunted house cycle1 than it does to anything Howard has involved himself with before. What it does in the first act is establish and isolate what we know is going to be the ‘crew,’ then it establishes the ‘monster,’ and then it pits them against each other for acts 2 and 3. And of course, because this particular haunted house story is itself something of a hybrid between the typical slasher and its cousin the monster movie, these teens do all the stupid things which mark them for death: drink, lose their clothes, have sex, turn on each other. And, for those tuned into what Paramount was living off of in the early eighties (can we say ‘Jason’ here?), the final girl is even easy to pick out in the first reel: she’s the one both least equipped, it would seem, to survive, and the one who can somehow best ‘redeem’ herself by facing all these issues, which are course represented by this slasher that’s after her. I mean, that’s part of the horror—that ‘good’ person, who it seems would deserve to live, of course can’t, because the world of horror isn’t fair like that. If it were, it wouldn’t be scary.
So, yeah, even with Howard behind the camera and Smith behind the pen and Paramount pushing it as ‘blunt force drama,’ The Ruins is nevertheless a slasher.2 Just a particularly articulate one. But yes, horror fans, there’s enough gore to go around, even one scene which seems to be a direct homage to Hellraiser’s set-piece, and yes, audio-visual club alums, the CGI that Cameron pioneered in The Abyss is functioning at top form here, and yes, Joe Bob Briggs,3 there is even a breast or two, though, in keeping with Final Girl conventions, it was a different character losing her shirt than Smith intended. However, those of you wanting a faithful adaptation might be a little disappointed. But it was all for the sake of story, understand.
Where Smith had these vacationers a mere eleven miles from their hotel, Howard instead made their bus ride a lot longer. Not because he was shooting a travel advertisement, but because it’s simply more believable to American audiences that you have to penetrate deeper into the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula to truly end up in uncharted and ‘dangerous’ type territories, Blair Witch notwithstanding. And of course, as movies need more ‘closure,’ more explanation, the adaptation attempts to explain some of the mythology of this particular plant: Was it in fact responsible for the Mayans’ downfall, instead of the conquistadors? According to the Mathias character (he’s half-native here, so can communicate somewhat with the locals4), maybe, yeah. Too, though, don’t forget that some of the license directors take with novels actually ends up being improvement. For example, the way Smith wrote it, when the crew traipses onto this hill, it’s vibrant, alive, thriving, in spite of the fact that no bugs or animals will come near it. The way Howard shot it, though, and this has to be in obeisance to The Burning (which took its cue from The Haunting of Hill House, of course), the foliage coating the hill is crackly and brown, evidently dying. As if the locals have been starving it, trying to eradicate it once and for all, finally. At which point, cue up the bumbling Americans, going headfirst into a food chain they know nothing about.
And, talking ‘Americans,’ as many readers have bemoaned, the ending Smith wrote for The Ruins was much more UK, possibly even French (to understand the difference, compare our The Vanishing and theirs, or, just talking Britain, the two cuts of The Descent). This is Hollywood, though, yes. An ending in which some rugged individual doesn’t pull him- or herself up by the bootstraps to overcome whatever obstacle is in the path of his or her personal expansion is no ending at all, but a temporary stopping point; a breather. But, of course, perhaps Smith was even aware of this eventuality—being adapted. Either way, he did tag an ending onto his novel which is part of the basic horror formula: the humorous suggestion of a sequel. So, while the film version is ‘lighter’ and more American than Smith initially intended, still, by qualifying that possibly-false (forced?) ending with the cycle starting again, what we have, essentially, is another Marilyn Chambers, the lone survivor of A Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But I’m not trying to dissuade you from seeing The Ruins, either, or from going back and reading Smith’s version. I mean, Howard wouldn’t have signed onto Smith’s story if it wasn’t good, if it wasn’t something he could translate to the screen in a way the audiences would get. That those audiences are summer audiences is just happenstance, too, at most a function of the genre the film owes the most to. And, I mean, we’ve all got it inside of us, a little horror; we’re all children in a dark room, to some extent. The Ruins serves very well to remind us of that. And, in spite of what Howard might have been trying not to do, I can’t imagine that daytrip tourists out of Cancun aren’t going to thin considerably for the next couple of seasons. Unless of course the tour guides start asking those tourists to pack a bottle or two of Round-Up into their fanny packs, ‘just in case.’
Four out of five stars.
Â© Stephen Graham Jones / http://demontheory.net
1 there are two versions of this, actually: the house that wants to be left alone, and tries to scare you away, and the house that’s hungry, so tries to entice you in. Howard’s house here is the second kind
2 and slashers, of course, are nothing if not loyal to Aristotle: limited cast, tight setting, and, most importantly, because otherwise there’d be time to call the cops, they usually take place over the course of a single weekend
3 he pioneered the breast count in his reviews
4 so, an expositional device, yes, dispatched as most expositional devices are: as soon as he’s said what he needs to say. However, in the film-version, unlike the book, we actually share his point of view at times; in the novel, all dark characters’ thoughts are hidden, too ‘mysterious’ to ever penetrate