The Ruins has something going for it, but that something is not, unfortunately, sympathetic characters. Directed by Carter Smith from Scott B. Smith’s screenplay (based on his own book), this newest horror film about vacationing Americans in foreign-locale trouble focuses on the supernatural terror encountered by med school-bound Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), his unfaithful girlfriend Jena (Jena Malone), her best friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Stacy’s beau Eric (Shawn Ashmore) upon venturing into the Mexican jungle in search of an “off the beaten path” Mayan temple. This excursion is orchestrated by a friendly German and his Greek pal, a setup that suggests that these Yanks are in for a Turistas-style ordeal in which their arrogant entitlement will be brutally punished, which would be appropriate given that the happy-go-lucky opening scenes reveal them (and especially the deceitful Amy) to be shallow, disagreeable ditzes.
The ensuing life-and-death predicament, however, is less didactic and surprisingly more potent. Upon reaching the temple, the group is surrounded by stereotypically menacing natives who callously commit murder, thus sending the remaining five travelers scurrying up the temple, where they’re trapped and, soon thereafter, become sacrifices for the hungry vines that cover the ancient edifice. The vines’ primary method of attack provides the film with unexpected metaphorical heft, as the sightseers’ casual lack of respect for Mexico’s land and culture is violently rectified by these ancient organic forces’ literal infiltration of their bodies and brains. The film’s concentration on panic-inducing bodily invasion and corruption rather than jolt scares provides escalating anxiousness, especially once the protagonists’ survival tactics—which amount to a series of ever-worse decisions driven by exhaustion, fear, and stupidity—start involving amateur surgery. Alas, Smith’s depiction of deteriorating-under-pressure group dynamics comes to an abrupt end just as it gets going, a disappointing development considering that his other mode of generating tension, the unholy vines themselves, can’t help but seem cheesy, especially once their unusually talented flowers begin vocally parroting both their human prey and cellphone ringtones.