“We’re being kept here to die” | The Ruins (2008)

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Ben Stiller is a noted writer, director and performer of Hollywood comedies, who has headlined such blockbuster hits as There’s Something About Mary (1998), Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008). He is not necessarily the first name to spring to mind when thinking about horror movies, yet in 2008 he and his business partner Stuart Cornfeld produced The Ruins, a rarely seen yet stunningly effective horror film. It is a film as relentless as it is bleak, filled with dread and constantly rising tension. It is a film that gets under your skin – in the case of its protagonists, quite literally so.

Stiller and Cornfeld were both fans of author Scott Smith, whose 1993 novel A Simple Plan had been adapted into a widely acclaimed 1999 thriller by director Sam Raimi. When they were given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Smith’s latest thriller The Ruins, they immediately took the property to DreamWorks Pictures and suggested they develop it is a feature film. Smith’s new novel followed four young American tourists who, with three Greek travellers and one German backpacker, head into the Mexican jungle to meet up with the German’s archaeologist brother – who is on a dig at an ancient temple. Once there the group find themselves isolated on top of a hill by a group of armed villagers – and whatever lies within the hill is starting to hunt them down. DreamWorks optioned The Ruins and hired Smith to adapt his own novel for the screen – something he had already done with A Simple Plan. Chris Bender was attached by the studio to co-produce: he had previously produced or co-produced a string of hit Hollywood pictures, including American Pie (1999), The Butterfly Effect (2004), The Ring Two (2005) and A History of Violence (2005).

To direct the film, DreamWorks selected Carter Smith, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose award-winning short film Bugcrush had demonstrated a remarkable flair for unsettling horror. Carter Smith said: ‘I had always been a fan of Scott Smith’s book A Simple Plan and was in fact reading The Ruins when DreamWorks called and said they’d like me to look at the script. It was such a treat, because the ultimate resource for a filmmaker is a wonderfully written script and this one was fantastic.’ [1]

The Ruins was greenlit for production with Smith directing on a budget of approximately $22 million dollars. The project was announced to the press in February 2007 with filming scheduled to commence that May.

Development and casting

‘One of the things that was so interesting to me about the characters,’ said Carter Smith, ‘was that they start out as these very sexy, very normal, very real kids. But by the end of the film they are just ravaged, destroyed; they’ve turned into monsters.’ [2]

Carter Smith was keen to ensure that actors cast in the film would understand The Ruins was a considerably more realistic, gritty sort of horror film than the standard Hollywood slasher flick. To this end, actors under consideration were not only sent a copy of Scott Smith’s screenplay but also a DVD of Carter’s short film Bugcrush.

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In the role of Amy Smith cast Jena Malone. The 23 year-old actress had most famously played Gretchen Ross in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), but also performed in Life as a House (2001), The United States of Leland (2003) and Into the Wild (2007). For an actress best known for small independent features (an early role as the young Jodie Foster in Contact notwithstanding), The Ruins presented a significant change of genre. ‘Well, for me,’ explained Malone, ‘it always starts with the material, and it was a really interesting script. There was very little dialogue. It was very humanistic and naturalistic and very creepy and fucked up and suspenseful and talking about really abstract things about human nature in a very subtle and interesting way.’ [3] In a separate interview, Malone said: ‘What I really liked about The Ruins, what I felt set it apart, is there’s no evil character. There’s no bad guy, no guy with a gun that’s shooting up and you gotta watch out behind the shadows.’ [4]

Laura Ramsey played best friend Stacy. She was best known for starring in the 2006 Renny Harlin thriller The Covenant. Jonathan Tucker played the role of Jeff, Amy’s boyfriend. When shooting commenced Tucker had recently completed work on The Black Donnellys, an ill-fated TV drama created by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash). Shawn Ashmore played Stacy’s boyfriend Eric. A successful child actor like Jena Malone, Ashmore had played the mutant superhero Iceman in the hugely successful X-Men films from 20th Century Fox. Joe Anderson rounded out the lead cast as Matthias, the German backpacker whose impulsive suggestion to visit his brother in the jungle sets the film in motion. Actually born in England, Anderson had co-starred in a number of successful films like Copying Beethoven (2006), Becoming Jane, Across the Universe and Control (all 2007).

Some changes were made in the transition from book to film. The hill on which the story took place was changed to a full Mayan temple, albeit one covered in weeds and crumbling to pieces. The fates of the individual characters were also swapped around and two out of the three Greek characters were largely excised from the narrative.

Shooting The Ruins

Carter Smith was keen to shoot as much of the film as possible in practical locations, only relying on a studio shoot when filming on location would prove impossible. While the novel (and screenplay) was set near Cancun, Mexico, it was determined that Queensland, Australia, would be logistically easier, cheaper and safer than a Mexican shoot. DreamWorks negotiated with Queensland’s Pacific Film and Television Commission to secure additional funding and taxation breaks for the production.

The base of the hill and the hilltop – where the stranded tourists would spend the bulk of the movie – were actually in two completely separate locations in Springbrook National Park. While the base provided sufficient room for horseback stunts and strong visuals of a lush jungle, the top of that hill did not provide an attractive enough background of treetops. Scenes on the hilltop where therefore shot atop a completely different hill, with editing used to seamlessly link the two locations together. ‘Working on any practical set,’ explained Shawn Ashmore, ‘is far better than working on a stage with a green screen. On real locations you can see the sky, you can feel the breeze.’ [5]

Construction of the temple section on the top and bottom of the hill took approximately seven weeks to complete. Scenes inside the temple underneath the hill were shot on a soundstage at Warner Bros’ Movie World Studios. As the film was set in the Mexican summer, but shot in the Australian winter, actors were sprayed with a combination of water and olive oil to simulate sweat. All of the outdoor scenes were shot with natural light to enhance the realism of the picture.

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Acclaimed Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji, whose past credits include The City of Lost Children, Seven, The Beach and Panic Room, was signed on as director of photography. For the veteran filmmaker, who has worked with a varied range of directors from Woody Allen to Wong Kar-Wai, The Ruins presented a fresh challenge. ‘I love the idea that the horror element […] exists openly in the heat of the aggressive sunlight,’ Khondji explained. ‘This approach is the antithesis of concealing with darkness and providing glimpses that reside in the audience’s subconscious. When there are no shadows, there is nowhere to hide.’ [6] Khondji shot the bulk of the film in natural light, running at least two handheld cameras at all times. This gave the film a realistic, gritty feel and further enhanced the tension.

One of the greatest challenges facing the production was the antagonist: a hill full of deadly, prehensile vines. ‘My initial reaction,’ said Carter Smith, ‘was, oh gosh, how are we gonna do this? I mean, a killer vine in a book is one thing, but film audiences are more likely to question and challenge that.’ [7]

Veteran designer and concept artist Patrick Tatopoulos was hired to develop a visual aesthetic for the vines. Tatopoulos had built an impressive career out of creature and robot designs since the early 1990s, and had worked on films such as Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), Pitch Black (2000) and I, Robot (2004). The decision was made not to rationalise or explain the deadly plants’ existence, or how they had evolved. The vines’ movements were developed by observing time lapse recordings of the growth of pumpkin vines. Ultimately a 12-person team, led by production designer Grant Major (The Lord of the Rings) sculpted and produced the plants seen on screen. ‘Not only do the vines look really great but they really helped with our performances,’ said Joe Anderson. ‘They complete this three-dimensional space, making it look real, feel real.’ [8] While puppetry and animatronics were explored as a means of getting the more aggressive tendrils to move, digital animation was ultimately utilised to give them as realistic and threatening a series of movements as possible.

For the film’s rapidly growing array of graphic injuries and infections, prosthetic make-up was used wherever possible. For a particularly graphic sequence where Matthias’ legs are amputated, the make-up team (led by Jason Baird) observed autopsy videos and also experimented with sections of animal meat. ‘We got real lumps of raw meat,’ explained Baird, ‘and watched how it moved and sagged and hit the ground. Then we mixed and matched various chemicals, silicones and foams until they mimicked the real thing.’ [9] The amputation scene was ultimately so graphic that the production was required to submit the finished scene to executives at DreamWorks to approve for release.

The combination of digital animation, graphic make-up and sickening sound design created one of the most confrontational studio horror films of all time, something which pleased Carter Smith a great deal: ‘Horror movies are one of the only genres in which audiences experience a very physical, visceral reaction to what they are seeing on screen.’ He added that ‘for me the best way to give the audience that release was to establish a very real world with very real characters, tease them with tension, then show glimpses of the most realistic horror I could produce. And if all that aligns and the audience experiences a physical reaction toward the film, then I think we achieved our goal.’ [10]

The production shoot concluded in July 2007.

The Ruins opened in American cinemas on 4 April 2008 opposite the family film Nim’s Island and the George Clooney comedy Leatherheads. Despite launching in more than 2,800 theatres, the film only managed to reach 5th place at the US box office with an opening weekend gross of $8 million dollars. First week grosses scarcely topped $10 million. In the second week, with fresh competition from horror movie Prom Night and police drama Street Kings, The Ruins slipped to 8th place, grossing an additional $4.5 million in the process.

By its third week The Ruins was out of the Top 10. By the end of its domestic run it had grossed only $17.4 million dollars. It took an additional $5.3 million internationally, resulting in a worldwide theatrical gross of $22.7 million. Which much of that money eaten up by exhibitor fees and marketing expenses, The Ruins exited cinemas with a significant monetary loss for DreamWorks Pictures. While it would ultimately recoup its costs through home video and TV broadcast licensing, it was not by any financial measure a success.

In Australia, the country in which it had been produced, The Ruins did not even make it into cinemas. A planned 17 April release was pushed back to 31 July, then 7 August. It was ultimately released to home video in December 2008.

Reviewing the film

The commercial failure of The Ruins led to the film being ultimately disregarded by film critics and many horror movie enthusiasts. At the time of its release, the film was also unfairly bundled up with a series of graphic horror movies including Saw, Hostel and Turistas – films that formed a sub-genre dubbed ‘torture porn’ by film critic David Edelstein. While the description of such film as ‘torture porn’ is in itself fairly odious and inaccurate, in the case of The Ruins it seems particularly inappropriate. The Ruins is a masterpiece of what is often described as ‘body horror’, horror where the audience’s tension and fear is generated by the graphic, unsettling destruction or alteration of the human body.

‘At the heart of what’s unsettling about this movie,’ said Carter Smith, ‘is this idea of bodily infection. Something that gets into your skin and thrives under the surface. I’ve been to places like Belize where you hear about the Botfly, which lays its eggs beneath your skin. Thank god I’ve never had to deal with it. We looked at so many documentaries and YouTube clips of under-the-skin parasites and they are disgusting!’ [11]

The film begins with a deliberate banality: four American tourists in their early twenties, lounging around a resort’s swimming pool in Cancun and who actually introduce themselves as two best friends and their boyfriends. Through a 15 minute sequence of scenes were see them lazily chatting by the pool, getting drunk on the beach and intimating sexual activity.

The first sense of horror we witness – aside from an arguably unnecessary prologue – is at the 20 minute mark, when the hapless protagonists first come across the titular ruins. They are surrounded by villagers, none of whom speak English, and are forced up onto the pyramid. Dmitri, the sole Greek backpacker to accompany the group on the trip, tries to approach the village leader and gets shot dead by an arrow and a bullet in return. It’s a sudden and frightening shift in tone, and marks an unexpectedly blunt and realistic kind of horror. Everything leading up to Dmitri’s death – dull young American protagonists, a creepy ancient ruin – suggests a horror film that will be supernatural, outlandish and more than a little tacky. Instead the horror is realistic, confrontational and sudden.

The next 20 minutes of the film continues in this vein. They can’t leave the top of the ruin. An attempt to look for Matthias’ brother inside the temple results in Matthias falling and breaking his spine. Further efforts to rescue him from the bottom of a pit only result in hurting him further. Somewhere in the bowels of the temple rings an abandoned cellular telephone, but it’s too dark for Amy or Stacy to find it.

I suspect many viewers will find the four central characters – Amy, Stacy, Jeff and Eric – relatively irritating. They are not particularly sensible. They are not particularly smart. When they rashly attempt to fix a bad situation, such as lifting Matthias’ broken body onto a makeshift stretcher – they invariably manage to make things worse. A lot of viewers tend to favour protagonists who are a little smarter and a little braver than one might be in real life. Take, for example, the runaway success of writers such as Joss Whedon, whose characters uniformly express wit and snarky repartee with the ease of some urbane college graduate. The characters of The Ruins are real. They’re dumb, ignorant and arrogant. They’re prone to panic. They regularly say stupid things. At least one of them undergoes a psychological breakdown over the three days they spend trapped on top of the temple.

Now there is always a place for the smart, sophistication, witty protagonist, but in a film with such blunt, real-life horrors a group of blunt, real-life characters somehow seems much more appropriate.

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After 20 minutes trapped on top of the ruins, the film shifts gear for a second time with the horrifying revelation that the vines that cover the entire structure are prehensile, invasive and carnivorous. They wrap themselves around our protagonists’ limbs. If they find an open wound or even an open orifice – a mouth, a nostril, an ear – they crawl inside. Where the audience’s expectation may have once been that The Ruins would be some supernatural horror movie, and then a violent siege thriller, it now becomes clear the film is neither of those things. It is a film about contagion: a relentless, constantly advancing organism from which there is no defence, no cure and no escape.

The film’s greatest masterstroke occurs with the discovery of the ringing telephone. The phone is, it turns out, long-since broken. It is the flowers around them that are vibrating, mimicking the telephone’s ringtone. In one dread-filled moment the only lingering hope of escape is cruelly snatched away, leaving Amy, Stacy and their boyfriends to die.

The carnivorous vines give The Ruins a distinctive difference compared to most American horror films. Generally speaking, American horror cinema presents a clear and identifiable villain; this is particularly true in the 1980s and 1990s, when long-running franchises were developed out of a range of cinematic boogeymen. An identifiable, discrete villain turned American horror films into stories of good triumphing over evil. The villain may be violent and terrifying, but that villain may be defeated, or dispelled, or even destroyed. It is in this respect that The Ruins actually does slot in neatly with contemporary horror films such as Hostel, Saw and the like. It is ‘survival horror’: something dreadful and appalling happens to a protagonist, and their primary goal is not to defeat their antagonist but to simply survive it. It’s a style of bleak, relentless horror that has been popular in Japan for some decades, and highlighted by late 1990s hits such as Ring, Kairu (Pulse), Audition and The Grudge.

It has been argued that, in many respects, survival horror is a symptom of a mass cultural trauma. In Japan the double-hit of the Great Hanshin earthquake and the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attack on the Tokyo subway inspired the aforementioned wave of bleak, relentless horror films. In the USA survival horror hit its stride in the years after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. In many respects The Ruins is a purer representation of survival horror than the other American films, because despite the emphasis of survival over victory both Saw and Hostel still present personable antagonists. The Ruins is much more akin to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) in which five college students slowly die from a flesh-eating virus in the middle of the woods. Just like that virus, the vines of The Ruins do not represent a traditional antagonist. They’re just plants. They encircle and constrict the characters because they are carnivorous and attracted to blood. They creepily mimic whatever the character shout or scream because they’ve evolved to mimic loud noises so at to attract their prey. They’re terrifying and deadly, but they’re not evil. They’re simply plants. No matter how you write it, you can’t demonise a plant.

When Matthias’ broken legs grow septic, Jeff – a medical school undergraduate – insists they must be amputated. This harrowing, quite graphic scene is representative of the film as a whole. The sequence is realistic and confrontational. In one of the film’s most chilling moments we cut from the amputation to the villagers waiting at the bottom of the hill, listening to Matthias’ screams and patiently waiting for the tourists to die.

It’s significant that almost all of the violence, torture and trauma put upon the five hapless tourists is self-inflicted. They are only trapped in the situation they are in because they deliberately chose to visit the temple. Matthias only breaks his spine because they failed to check the integrity of his rope. Stacy deliriously mutilates her own body, and it’s Stacy – not the plants – who murders Eric.

There’s a strong argument to be made that, once you put aside the trauma, the torture and the carnivorous flora, The Ruins is actually a film about the hubris of American tourists. They begin the film cocky and full of bravado. None of them speak enough Spanish to sustain a conversation. As soon as their predicament becomes clear, Jeff arrogantly assures the others that they will be rescued within a day. ‘Four Americans on vacation don’t just disappear!’ he shouts, as if saying it aloud will make it true. Three days later and it’s only Amy who escapes from the ruins, running through the forest in a hail of arrows and bullets and driving into the distance in Matthias’ brother’s abandoned jeep. She has survived, because in this kind of horror movie survival is the best that you can do.

References

  1. Quoted in The Ruins production notes, DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  2. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  3. Quoted in “Exclusive: Jena Malone on The Ruins”, Shock Till You Drop, 30 March 2008.
  4. Shawn Adler “Ruins star Jena Malone says the horror flick’s true villain is you”, MTV.com, 3 April 2008.
  5. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  6. Simon Gray, “Temple of Doom”, American Cinematographer, April 2008.
  7. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  8. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  9. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  10. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
  11. Lawrence Ferver, “Out director Carter Smith helms The Ruins”, Edge Boston Massachusetts, 3 April 2008.
  1. Excellent piece. It really is a great little movie.

    Reply

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