Friday, October 6, 2017

The Ruins

The Ruins (2008)
Dir. Carter Smith
Written by Sam Smith, adapted from his own novel
Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey, An Ashmore, Joe Anderson

What makes a horror film? Blood? Terrified teenagers? A mysterious hostile antagonist? Ominous settings? The intent to instill unease and fear?

Ordinarily, this is exactly the kind of film theory semantics black hole that I try to avoid. I had a whole semester-long class in college about film genre, which sounded fun in the abstract, until I realized that the whole thing would just be an endless, soul-crushing death march of various egghead film theorists who all had their own personal list of Five Things A Western Should Be, which were all equally arbitrary and contradictory and could only lead to a permanent nonconversation about whether or not Gary Cooper crying means HIGH NOON isn’t technically a Western, or if the gender reversals in THE LONELY PLACE make it an anti-Noir instead of a Noir. This is, of course, the very opposite of meaningful. Genres, like so many categories which rigidly define the way we think of the world, are artificial inventions, merely ways of helping us conceptualize content and purpose, and useful only to the extent that they aid us in that regard. The idea that we need precise definitions of exactly where the border of “Noir” ends and “Crime movie” begins is not only an absolutely stultifying sisyphysian torment, it’s simply absurd. A story is just a story, nothing more. We can talk about similarities it shares with other stories --style, content, in tone, in intent-- but to demand each and every story line up neatly with our predetermined list of criteria is folly on a whole multiverse of levels. Since the entire discussion centers around whatever arbitrary set of definitions you want to dream up, it’s inevitably a discussion of apples and oranges -- my Slasher might not look at all like your Slasher; heck, you might not even agree that the Slasher is a separate genre from Horror, or from Thriller. What common ground to we even have to begin arguing at that point? And really, it’s worse than comparing apples and oranges, because at least those two things actually exist. Genre is merely whatever we say it is. So why bother arguing about it?

Consequently, I usually avoid this entire category of argument like I would an uncomfortable relative at Thanksgiving who wants to tell me how Trump is finally going to lock Hillary up. But unfortunately I can’t avoid it in this case, because I had an odd reaction to THE RUINS. THE RUINS has blood. It has terrified teenagers. It has a mysterious hostile antagonist. It has an ominous setting. And it largely has the intent to instill unease and fear. And yet, for the life of me I could not shake the vague sensation that it does not feel like a horror movie.  

fucking terrifying.

Let us begin, though, with what it is: THE RUINS is the story of five pretty white teenagers (OK, technically young adults in college, but you and I both know these same five 30-somethings would play the 19-year-old versions of these characters too, so let’s not start picking at each other’s nomenclature just yet) on vacation in Mexico, who get stuck on top of a undiscovered Mayan temple, menaced from below by a gang of uncomfortable ethnic villains who won’t let them leave, and from above by… well, some kind of mysterious hostile force. It’s pretty much a single-location thriller whereby our ostensible heroes have to discover what forces are aligned against them, battle the elements, and find some way to survive and escape.

It sounds like a horror movie, but I simply can’t resist using that word thriller instead. This feels to me like it belongs in a mildly burgeoning subgenre that I would call the survival thriller, things like OPEN WATER, FROZEN (not the one with “Let it Go,” the one with the guys who get stuck on the ski lift), THE SHALLOWS, 47 FEET DOWN (a lot of these are about sharks, come to think of it), where the protagonist is trapped in a hostile location and has to use his or her ingenuity to survive against the elements. Most of these movies don’t have a supernatural or even exotic element, just the normal hostile forces of nature baring down on them with all their natural fury. These movies are tense, certainly. But then again, so is THE GREY, so is CASTAWAY, or THE REVENANT. An experience can be harrowing without ever being, exactly, scary. And even with the somewhat colorful details here (SPOILER -- carnivorous plants who can replicate human speech on an ancient mayan temple END SPOILER), I can’t seem to get around the fact that this seems oddly grounded and literal-minded to qualify as horror.

These protagonists are put in danger, no doubt, but the emphasis of the storytelling is on their problem-solving ability, not their raw fear. That’s what throws me off, I think. There is, admittedly, one solid and unambiguous horror sequence involving a dessicated corpse and the mystery antagonist’s first real aggression towards our heroes, but other than that, the tone has as distinct and arguably self-defeating inclination towards the practical. Throughout the movie, a problem arises, our heroes put their heads together and figure out a solution. A new wrinkle arises, they modify their plan and overcome it. Found a subterranean lair? Well, let’s make some torches and lower ourselves down there. Rope broke? Well, let’s McGuyver a stretcher for the guy who fell and tie strips of cloth together to extend the rope. Rope still won’t reach? Well, let’s decide if it’s better to pick the guy up and move him or wait til we can add length to the rope somehow. It’s very task-oriented, and these people prove, generally, to rally in the face of extreme odds and work together to come up with logical solutions to each new hurdle that arises. Only problem is, despite their best efforts, things get worse and worse. They don’t really make any huge mistakes, don’t really have any tragic flaws, they’re just fucked, and there’s not much they can do about it. This bestows the movie with a kind of grim fatalism that you usually only encounter in a torture movie or a survival flick. If there’s really nothing the protagonists can do to save themselves, where is the actual tension? It’s more depressing than terrifying.  

It’s well made, of course, like all modern horror movies are, very professional and all that. Way-too-good-for-this-dreck veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji (who’s worked with Roman Polanski [admittedly on THE 9TH GATE, but still], Danny Boyle [THE BEACH], Neil Jordan [IN DREAMS], David Fincher [SEVEN, PANIC ROOM], Alan Parker [EVITA], Michael Haneke [AMOUR*], Sydney Pollack [THE INTERPRETER], Bong Joon-Ho [OKJA], and a whole raft of Woody Allen and most of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movies)** makes the film look great, racking up one nice-looking shot after the next. To no real benefit for the film, of course, but damn, it does look nice. And again, like most modern horror movies, the cast is all much better than they need to be. You got Jonathan Tucker (VIRGIN SUICIDES, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH), Jena Malone (THE NEON DEMON), Laura Ramsey (who, I have to concede, became famous for starring in THE REAL CANCUN, but since then at some point it seems like she’s become a real actress and we’ve all agreed that we’re OK with this) at least one of the Ashmore octuplets (possibly but not certainly Shawn, who would be familiar with this sort of thing from having starred in 2010’s FROZEN), and Joe Anderson (who I liked a lot in HORNS). They all work real hard and seem real intense, and because the script was adapted from the novel of the same name by its author (Sam Smith, who also wrote the novel for A SIMPLE PLAN!) they all get a little dusting of character movements and drama and stuff. Again, to no real benefit for the film, but hey, credit where it’s due.

But technical proficiency doesn’t equate to quality, at least not in the nebulous genre in which we now tread. Who needs professionalism, anyway? Is there anyone on Earth who would refuse to watch a crappy, amateurish version of this movie but who would watch a version shot by Darius Khondji? If you want your movies to be good, you’re probably interesting in things which are still better than this. So I just don’t see where that elbow grease pays off. That’s the trick with genre; if it’s about anything at all, if it has any meaning at all, it’s about something subtle. A feeling, a mood. Irish novelist and moonlighting ghost story purveyor Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of The Day) wrote in 1968, “Fear has its own aesthetic...and also its own propriety. A story dealing in fear ought, ideally, to be kept at a certain pitch. And that austere other world, the world of the ghost, should inspire, when it impacts on our own, not so much revulsion or shock as a sort of awe.” I cannot in good conscience say that I think THE RUINS meets that definition. It’s a movie about a series of escalating inconveniences to be overcome, which focuses its attention on gorey details but not unknowable horror. It seeks to inspire revulsion much more than a sort of awe. It’s a movie with believes it can frighten with vivid grit, rather than lurking darkness.

And it’s so serious about it! When did we all decide horror movies had to be no fun? Only Joe Anderson has a bit of straight faced playfulness, playing the arch Teutonic accent of his German character riiiiight up to the Boris Badenov line. The movie otherwise has absolutely zero sense of humor or fun, which is probably part of the problem. It even fails to deliver the correct ironic final punchline! (SPOILER: You dorks, the joke isn’t that some other people are going to show up and have to endure the same thing, the joke is that even though our heroine escaped, she’s now likely going to contaminate the whole world! If I have to explain to you what the dark irony is in your own movie, I’m gonna go ahead and assume you just don’t quite get the genre. END SPOILERS).

Still, for what it is, it’s solidly constructed and seldom boring. It’s probably a good movie. Just not the kind that I’m really looking for.

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” -- Stephen King, Danse Macabre

*Perhaps by way of apology for also shooting the American remake of FUNNY GAMES

**Man, putting this man’s skills to this gloomy b-movie creature feature is just an insult, like asking Michelangelo to help you paint your front porch.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

Terror Has Evolved. Not really sure what that means
There is a ruined temple which features prominently.
Yup, of the novel of the same name by Sam Smith
None, though it seems possible
USA, though shot in Australia (filling in for Mexico. Is it really cheaper to shoot it halfway around the world than in an actual Maya area?!)
Survival Thriller
Jena Malone?
Yeah, but I appreciate that there’s some gender equity. Laura Ramsay has a little extraneous getting-dressed sequence, but I think both Ashmore and Tucker get some leering ass-shots, and the camera spends a while absolutely drooling over their killer abs. Director Carter Smith is also a fashion photographer, so I think he just likes pretty people.
In a nice gender reversal, one of the drunk girls starts hanging on one of the guys more or less against his will
When (spoiler)... plants attack?
This is weird, it seems like the Ruins are putting the whammy on one of the characters after awhile, but she may just be cracking up from stress, it’s a little unclear.
None, unless you want to assume this is the fault of some kind of devilish ancient Mayan ritual. But I see no reason to believe that.
Yeah, even split between this and “possession” since it’s a little unclear exactly what’s going on
Oddly none really, which seems weird.
Sometimes life just up and fucks ya, and it wasn’t your fault, really, and there’s nothing you can do.

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