It’s time for a brand-new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month it’s time for a nice tropical getaway. So, pack up your sunscreen, your vine repellant, and your white privilege as we fly off to Mexico for Carter Smith’s 2008 killer plant flick, The Ruins. Serving as our tour guide is Michele Eggen, one half of the Movies for Life podcast. She and co-host Brian Keiper are rabid film fans, and their show celebrates everything that makes film so special with enthusiasm, humor, and a keen eye for detail.
I’m thrilled that Eggen asked to introduce me to The Ruins, as it’s one that I’ve always heard great things about but never got around to seeing myself. It’s kind of like that item you never buy for yourself, but you’re ecstatic to receive as a birthday present. Plus, it’s one of those under-the-radar films that doesn’t get a lot of mainstream love but seems to be pretty beloved among horror fans.
The film follows four Americans on the tail end of their trip to Mexico. Amy (Gena Malone) and Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) are enjoying some time together before Jeff leaves for medical school, while Amy’s best friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey) is just enjoying partying with her boyfriend, Eric (Shawn Ashmore). When the group meets German tourist Mathias (Joe Anderson) at their resort, he offers to take them to Mayan ruins not found on any of the usual tourist maps. Although Amy is skeptical, the group decides to check it out, but they are soon confronted by local villagers. When they get too close to the temple, the Mayans become agitated and force them to stay on the temple under threat of death. The group soon discovers the source of the villagers’ fear: the vines surrounding the ruins aren’t your run-of-the-mill ivy. They’re sentient, they’re predatory, and they’re hungry. (Spoiler Warning, as we’ll be getting into more detailed plot points during our discussion).
Obviously, like all of the films in this series, The Ruins is a recent watch for me. But Eggen jumped at the opportunity to catch it when it was released, having already enjoyed the book on which it was based.
I saw it in the theater when it came out because I had read the book, which got a lot of traction because Stephen King was a fan. It was written by Scott Smith, who in the early ’90s wrote A Simple Plan, the book that was turned into a movie by Sam Raimi with Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Bridget Fonda. I had read that and seen the movie adaptation, and that was the only two books that that guy has ever written. So, I definitely wanted to read The Ruins after reading A Simple Plan, and it was really interesting because I wanted to read the book first before going to see the movie. But it was so weird because all the major plot points that happened in the book happened in the movie, as I recall, but they all happen to different characters.
Indeed, it seems as though Scott Smith, who in addition to writing the source material was tasked with writing the screenplay, wanted to keep anyone who’d already read his book on their toes as he scrambles major plot points among different characters from the book to the film. One thing that stays consistent, however, is that the characters aren’t necessarily the most sympathetic, which Eggen finds rather intriguing.
I kind of like that the characters were a little bit unlikable. They were pretty much characterized the same as they were in the book, where Amy is described as kind of whiny and always complaining, Jeff is like the take-charge kind of guy because he’s going to medical school, but I like that there was contention right at the beginning. They’re not this tight-knit friend group right away. Eric describes it as “Amy and Stacy are best friends and we’re their boyfriends.” They’re not really all that close, and I like that.
Part of what makes The Ruins so effective is that while the killer vines are our big bad, they also serve as a catalyst to dredge up tension among the group. Given the simmering conflict already in place at the beginning of the movie, Eggen explains that it’s not surprising to see the psychological element quickly ramp up among them.
Usually with the “group of friends go on vacation” trope, they like each other. There might be some stuff there, but here it doesn’t really seem like they like each other a whole lot right away. When things start to get bad, Eric and Jeff are going at each other because they don’t know each other that well. It seems like the vines picked a really easy group of people to come after because they’re so easily torn apart. Amy and Stacy are supposedly best friends, but those things that you know about other people can come out when you’re lashing out or mentally drained. Then also those moments where they know that’s why they’re saying those things and doing those things to each other because of the situation that they’re in with each other, but they obviously don’t want anything bad to happen.
Now, a group of people on vacation being attacked by killer vines could have so easily fallen into camp, so I asked Eggen how The Ruins avoided going the way of The Happening. She points out that Carter Smith takes great care to center the audience with the characters, so we are going through this ordeal along with them.
I think that it’s just so visceral. What I like about it is that you feel what the characters are feeling, and therefore you get into it a little bit more. It’s kind of like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where it feels very hot and sweaty the whole movie. You can just feel that they're out there in the open sun the whole movie, except for when they go into the tent or at night. But they're sweaty and dirty, wearing the same clothes and not showering. You can just feel that kind of stuff. You can almost smell it! There was a scene that was cut where it rains, and I'm actually glad that they cut that because I think it adds more to the tension and the characters’ descent into madness as the vines are picking them off one by one.
Eggen also points out that the characters, while not necessarily given full backstories, are well-developed within the context of the movie and aren’t just caricatures. In particular, Eggen really appreciated Laura Ramsey’s work as Stacy, who adds a wild playfulness to a character that could have been very one-note. Because of the care Ramsey takes in creating this fun character, it’s that much more harrowing to watch her ordeal as the vines attack both her body and her mind.
The vines physically mess with them, but they also psychologically mess with them. The way the vines can mimic, imitate, and whisper [Editor’s note: the reveal that the vines have been mimicking the sound of a cell phone broke my brain], that's what I remember from the book because you can get more time in the characters’ heads. But there's a lot more psychological torture from the plants, which I really appreciate. It obviously affects Stacy the most, and the way that she plays it is so good. One of my favorite little moments is when she's just kind of starting to lose it, and she asks Eric for his phone that hasn't worked for a long time. But she just keeps opening it. The group won't say anything to her or to each other, but there are looks between them as they can see what's happening to her. It's heartbreaking. Then later when she's gone up by herself and found the knife again, and she's all covered in blood because she's been trying to cut the vines out of her, it's just hard to watch when you see where she started as this fun, strong person that I would love to be friends with.
The gnawing question in this situation also becomes, “Given the torture the vines put these people through, are they malevolent entities? Or are they just natural predators?” The film seems purposefully vague on this, which Eggen enjoys.
That was kind of fun about not getting any history on them, because you could also ask the question, “Why did the Mayans want to protect them?” From the book I remember that they had a truce with the plants. It's interesting, too, in the book it's not an actual temple. It's just described as a hill that the vines are covered in. You wonder, “Is it just like any kind of animal, or any kind of plant in the wild just doing what it does to survive? Or is it possessed or something like that?”
One aspect of the film that made me cringe a bit was the “exotic locale” trope, where white people are accosted by the dangers found in countries predominantly populated by people of color. Eggen acknowledges this as well but wonders if there might be a knowing nod from Carter Smith in how this plays out, pointing out that there’s “a good joke about where Jeff says, “Four Americans on vacation don't just disappear!” I think that's a totally self-aware joke about what they're doing.
So, there’s definitely a play on the idea of white American entitlement as these characters plowed through every warning sign imaginable to put themselves in harm’s way. And with their screwing around, they do indeed find out as everyone winds up dead except for Amy, who escapes in a jeep to parts unknown. At least that’s the case in the theatrical version, but Eggen asserts that the original, darker ending is much more satisfying.
I remember being a little disappointed at the theatrical ending because she just drives away and then there's a little “oh shit” moment when Mathias’ Greek traveling companions, who were supposed to be joining them, finally do arrive. But overall I remember that being a little anticlimactic. She just gets away. How did she get home?
The original way, the ending that I'm used to, is the one where she's driving away and there's a closeup of her face where you can see a little bit of vine underneath her skin, and then it goes to the Greeks arriving. I prefer that ending where she's infected because it's more realistic, and also I kind of like bleak endings because I'm sadistic like that.
That bleak ending also accentuates that theme of white entitlement, as Eggen explains Amy’s actions ultimately put a lot of people at risk.
That's why the Mayans were quarantining her, because she was the first one to get infected as she was the first one that touched the plant. So, they know what's going on, they know that she has to stay there. Otherwise she's gonna spread it. That's what they're doing, they're trying to keep it from spreading. But the Americans don't care about that. They just want to go home, which makes sense, but they're also putting everybody else in danger.
But while that original ending sets up the possibility for more, possibly larger-scale sequels, Eggen is glad no one ever tried to follow up what she sees as a very satisfying story.
Then you would get into campy corny territory because then they would go even bigger with vines taking over cities. As it is, it’s just a self-contained, visceral, gory, dramatic horror movie that stands on its own. We need to have more movies like that, and just stay on its own without having to make it anything more than it is because I think it's great the way it is.