As horrorfilms go, The Ruins pretty much gives you what you came for: Hapless teens destined for body bags? Check. Creepy locale? Check. Deepening mystery and feeling of dread? Check. Gross-out gore? Check. Short running time? Check (thank god).
Adapting his own popular novel, Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan) takes a potentially silly concept and turns it into something believably scary. Sure, the characters are puddle deep and their dialogue rarely rises above the mundane, but what makes this jungle-bound creepfest work are good actors, brisk pace and attention to detail.
Four American college students on vacation in Mexico hook up with a German tourist who tells them his archeologist brother has discovered a Mayan ruin; do they want to go check it out? Hell, yeah! So, with little more than a daypack, the groups treks into the jungle (along with a Greek tourist who doesn't last long enough to make an impression) and find the temple ... as well as the remnants of the archeologists' camp. Where'd they go? And why won't the well-armed natives who have encircled the ruin let them leave? And whose goddamned cell phone keeps ringing deep in the bowels of the pyramid?
Debut director Carter Smith wins at keeping things fresh and tense, especially when you consider the cast is mostly confined to 50 feet atop a ruined pyramid. He and writer Smith whip up tension by judiciously parceling out each horrific revelation while keeping the kids' decisions grounded in reality; they make some monumentally bad choices but not necessarily stupid ones. The ensuing violence (usually surgical), though decidedly gory at times, is more matter-of-fact than gratuitous. The movie strikes a good balance of showing enough to elicit gasps and squirms but cuts away when necessary.
More surprising is how good the actors are with their generically cardboard characters. Neither virtuous nor venal, they are convincingly ordinary — which does not make for much psychological complexity but roots things in the real world. Jena Malone (Into the Wild) keeps us engaged, though she's a mostly an unsympathetic protagonist, and Jonathan Tucker (The Black Donnellys) and Shawn Ashmore (The X-Men movies) are swell alpha-males. But it's Laura Ramsey who ends up shining as the endlessly tormented Stacy. Saddled with one horrible injury after another, her fear and pain are palpably believable, culminating in a merciful off-screen demise. Nothing in this young actress' dreck-filled résumé (Venom, The Covenant) would have suggested she could pull it off.
While The Ruins won't win awards or be all that memorable in a month, you could do much worse in this year of crappy horror flicks. It's a scary monster flick that twists things just enough to be interesting then gets the hell out of Dodge.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.