Whilst not entirely without interest, The Ruins serves as yet another example of what can go wrong when a novel is adapted for film. Here we have a case of the high concept elements being carried over from the book but none of the characterisation or psychology. As a result, the film feels anemic and sorely undeveloped.
Some of the blame for this may lie with the novelist Scott Smith, who adapted his own work here. Despite a creditable track record in shepherding his novels to the screen (he previously scripted the adaptation of his earlier best-seller, A Simple Plan, and made a good job of it), the script in this instance strips away most everything bar the basic plot of the novel, and as a result we are left with a fairly generic kids-in-peril movie: holidaying pretty young things ignore dire warnings from locals and go to spooky place, bad shit happens, let’s see how well this one does and leave it open for a sequel.
However, I do also wonder how much of the film may have been left on the cutting room floor. Judging by the available evidence (a no doubt studio-mandated upbeat ending and inexperienced first-time director), perhaps executive pressure was applied to produce a relatively palatable 90 minute multiplex flick, and the character-based material that might have distinguished the film was thrown out along the way. Given the brevity and general sketchiness on display, this seems entirely possible.
The film starts badly, with a cheap “boo” prologue and another even cheaper fake scare some minutes later (can we please have a moratorium on animals leaping out of the corner of the frame in horror movies?), but eventually abandons this kind of nonsense in favour of a couple of effectively horrific set pieces, which serve to suggest what might have been.
Credit should be given for taking a concept that could easily prove risible onscreen (man-eating plants?) and generally making it work. Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors may occasionally spring to mind, but there are moments in the story where a genuinely surreal, nightmarish quality is achieved. Director Carter Smith won this assignment on the strength of his short film Bugcrush, and whilst he might have been defeated by the demands of a feature length narrative on this occasion, does at least suggest he possesses the ability to go onto greater things.
For there is potential here. But for The Ruins to work properly, it should have paid more attention to stressing the characters’ isolation, their lack of food and water, the oppressive heat. The film moves so quickly that there is little tension or atmosphere created. The climax in particular is seriously rushed and underbaked. In particular, more time should have been spent playing upon the plants’ ability to mimic sounds and voices. This comes into focus in a couple of scenes, but there was greater scope for amping up the air of paranoia and mistrust that ends up being thrown away in the interest of a brief running time.
And this is the fundamental problem: too often, mainstream Hollywood horror movies simply don’t understand pacing. They think they do, ie quick pace = good. But many genre films require a slower build, a more deliberate feel. What doesn’t happen between the horrific beats is often as important as the big set pieces. Anyone with a decent sense of genre craft knows that, but meddling studio executives, in their rush to get to the next scare, too often fail to realise it.
The Ruins is a perfect case in point. Despite the odd moment of inspiration or interest, it’s ultimately too much of a studio product to really work. There’s the skeleton of a good film here, but like one of the carnivorous plants’ victims, it has no meat on its bones.