Maybe it says something about our national fears that there's now an entire subset of horror movies devoted to young Americans who go to the Third World, use it as their playground, and die. In the infamous Hostel films, college students running amok in an obscure corner of Eastern Europe find themselves the targets of a recreational-torture-and-murder ring. In Turistas, it's a Brazilian organ-harvesting racket. Call it the flip side of MTV's "Spring Break": The kids who form the core audience of these movies seem to like seeing one hell of a comeuppance visited on their toned, hedonistic peers.
In The Ruins, the trouble starts when four college kids vacationing in Cancun meet the mother of all language barriers. Couples Eric and Stacy (Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey) and Jeff and Amy (Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone) have teamed up with a young German (Brit Joe Anderson, with an egregiously fake accent) to find his brother, who hasn't been heard from since he left for a Mayan archaeological dig deep in the jungle. They find the site easily — a massive pyramid draped with jaunty, pointy-leaved vines. But a group of indigenous folks blocks the way, brandishing weapons and yelling in a language that's not Spanish. Naturally, the kids don't recognize this reception for what it is: a warning. Like a good little tourist, Amy snaps photos of the angry natives, and when she steps back into the foliage for a better shot, it's too late. Soon our heroes are imprisoned on the pyramid, surrounded by a circle of villagers ready to shoot to kill. But what's up there with them is a lot worse.
And sillier. Scott Smith, who adapted The Ruins from his best-selling novel, is a smart pulp writer who knows how to give zing to familiar genres. With A Simple Plan, he breathed new life into the noir thriller. In The Ruins, he took an absurd supernatural-horror conceit — hint: the monster is vegetable, not animal — and turned it into a gripping, unpredictable story about five people who are doomed more by their own weaknesses than the outside threat. Hung over from last night's party and equipped for a light hike, the characters find themselves in a life-or-death situation, and Smith relates their attempts to survive in grueling detail. When one of them contracts an infection after a serious fall, it's time for a makeshift amputation. And when another starts insisting the surrounding foliage is getting under his skin — well, don't ask.
All this gross-out stuff is in the movie, along with a few good scares. (The scene where the women venture into a mineshaft in search of an eerily ringing cellphone is especially effective.) But Scott has purged his own story of its ironic twists. In the novel, he defies expectation by killing off seemingly smart, resourceful characters first, leaving the happy-go-lucky ditzes to muddle through. In the movie, not so much — to the extent the kids have personalities at all, their fates are exactly what you'd expect in a run-of-the-mill slasher. Indie queen Malone (Saved!) makes the most of her role as bossy, neurotic Amy, whose drunken misbehavior the previous night weakens the cohesion of the group. But otherwise, the petty jealousies and personal clashes that took center stage in the book barely register.
Despite a good setup and some tense moments, this disappointing adaptation limps to an ending that seems to have been cobbled together in an effort to please the audiences at two wildly different test screenings. Like last year's U.S. version of British shocker The Descent, The Ruins may well use an alternate, grimmer finale as a selling point for its DVD. There's something authentic at the roots of this gruesome movie genre, but the execution is all about marketing.