By Pete Vonder Haar | April 6, 2008

While it’s always been in the military-industrial-entertainment complex’s best interests to keep us sitting fat and happy on our couches, scarfing down pizza and watching three episodes of “American Idol” per week, now they appear to be in cahoots with the various Central and South American governments and their hotel industries. How else to explain why we keep getting these horror movies about the dangers of straying from the beaten tourist path?

“The Ruins” takes us to Mexico, where best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) are enjoying the last days of their vacation. To this point, they’ve split the bulk of their time between the pool and the beach, but when German backpacker Mathias (Joe Anderson) tells them of his plans to visit his archaeologist brother at a secret Mayan pyramid dig site, the group elects to finally experience some local culture and accompany him. Tagging along is Dimitri, the only one of a trio of drunken Greeks ambulatory enough to make the journey after the previous night’s debauchery.

This, as it turns out, is a big mistake. Despite a number of things that should’ve, at the very least, given the group pause (the local guide book has clearly excised the pyramid from any maps, it’s an 11-mile taxi ride on dirt roads followed by a 2-mile hike), they finally emerge at their destination. The pyramid is covered in vines and flowers, and at the same time surrounded by a perimeter of bare earth. Just as they’re about to head up, they’re confronted by a number of locals, armed with bows, arrows, and guns. They shoot Dimitri and force the rest of them up the pyramid. The group doesn’t realize until later that it was their stepping into the vines that forced this reaction.

They figure it out soon enough, however. The camp atop the pyramid is deserted, and it becomes apparent that they weren’t killed by the tribesmen, but rather the ever-present vines, which not only strip the flesh from bones and enter the body through wounds, but are able to imitate cell phone rings and mimic human voices. The survivors try to cling to their dwindling hope that someone will come for them before death – whether by archery or murderous flora – overtakes them.

There are a handful of intense sequences and a few scenes of squirm-inducing gore in “The Ruins,” but not much else. The film is based on Scott Smith’s excellent book, but does little to capture the novel’s sense of terror and hopelessness. This is disappointing, considering Smith also wrote the screenplay, but fits perfectly into Hollywood’s template for recent horror: imperil some teens, gloss over the psychological aspects of their ordeal with gore and T&A, and tack on an unlikely ending (yes, it does differ significantly from the book). It’s too bad, because Smith’s original work was a triumph of psychological horror and dread, but such things rarely translate well to the big screen.

No origins are given for the vines. This allows the filmmakers to ignore obvious questions like: Why haven’t the locals just burned the f*****g thing out? Sure, they’re rooted pretty deep in the bowels of the pyramid, but the villagers have nothing but time on their hands. And in all these years, none of that pollen ever made it across the perimeter?

Finally, one problem with “The Ruins” I couldn’t shake was the fact that the group, finally comprehending what they were up against and why the villagers were standing guard (and salting the earth to keep the plants from spreading), continue to try and escape. At the very least you’re talking about probably thousands of deaths should the vines break their containment. At worst, it’s “Day of the Triffids II.” I mean, when MacReady and Childs realize the alien is trying to hibernate again so it can get back to civilization (John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” still one of the best horror movies ever made), they not only do their best to kill it, but accept their own deaths as an inevitable consequence. Sure, they didn’t have civilization a few short miles away, but still, how about a little consideration for the rest of humanity?

I guess the moral of “The Ruins” is: don’t send Jena Malone to do Kurt Russell’s job.

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