10 years ago today, Carter Smith‘s (Jamie Marks is Dead) film adaptation of Scott Smith‘s* (A Simple Plan, no relation to Carter) novel The Ruins was released in theaters nationwide. Though it was critically panned upon its initial release (a film about killer flora that takes itself seriously will have that effect on people), the film has found a small cult following in recent years. On its 10th anniversary, we take to take a look at the film’s origins, production and reception, because it’s a good film goddammit and it finally deserves some respect.
*I’ll be referring to each Smith using their first and last names to prevent confusion.
***SPOILERS for the film and book versions of The Ruins below.***
From Book to Screen
Scott Smith’s novel was the hot topic of the mid-2000s. It was only his second novel, and is currently still his only one since his debut novel A Simple Plan struck gold in 1993. When The Ruins was released on July 18, 2006, it received universal acclaim. Even Stephen King praised the novel, writing:
“The Book of the Summer: That would be The Ruins, by Scott Smith, last heard from in 1993 (A Simple Plan, later filmed by Sam Raimi from Smith’s script). No quietly building, Ruth Rendell-style suspense here; Smith intends to scare the bejabbers out of you, and succeeds. There are no chapters and no cutaways—The Ruins is your basic long scream of horror. It does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches in 1975…[It is] the best horror novel of the new century.”
This quote was unsurprisingly featured on the cover of the book’s paperback edition.
In the novel, American college students Amy, Eric, Stacy and Jeff meet Mathias, a German tourist looking for his brother Heinrich. Heinrich left to go see the ruins of the novel’s title and Mathias hasn’t heard from him since. The quartet decide to tag along with Mathias in the hope of seeing some real Mayan ruins. Greek tourist Pablo agrees to join them, and his friends decide to meet up with them at the ruins in a few days. Once there, they don’t find any ruins, but rather a large hill covered in vines and surrounded by bare earth. Upon stepping on the vines, they are cornered by the very well-armed local Mayan community who make it unmistakably clear that they will kill any of them if they try to get off the hill. The rest of the novel takes place over the course of several days as the students try to figure out how to escape the ruins, not realizing they are intruding on the home of deadly carnivorous vines.
With The Ruins, Smith did what seemed impossible: turn carnivorous vines (with the ability to mimic sound, no less) into a terrifying villain. It could be argued (and it most definitely was at the time) that the concept is only effective on paper and doesn’t work on film. After all, reading about killer talking vines is one thing, but seeing it is something else entirely. It should be noted, however, that the real terror comes in the form of human nature. With the exception of two characters (Pablo and Amy in the novel, only Mathias in the film), the vines don’t actually kill anyone. All of the other deaths are cause by other humans. The novel has us witness the mental breakdown of these characters, and how that leads to their downfall.
Ben Stiller(!), who knew Smith from the early stages of adapting A Simple Plan for the big screen (he eventually left that production due to financing issues) sought out to buy the rights to the novel after having only read a few chapters that Scott Smith had written. His production company Red Hour Films acquired the rights to the novel in 2004, a full two years before the novel was even released.
In the rare instance of an author adapting his own novel for the big screen, Scott Smith was tasked with writing the screenplay. He essentially told the same story, but switched around the fates of the characters. In the novel, Amy is actually the first of the four to die and Stacy ends up being the last person alive. Eric is the one who cuts himself up to get the vines out of him as opposed to Stacy in the film. The novel also makes his predicament more ambiguous, as it is unclear if there are actually vines crawling under his skin or if he has just lost his mind. Finally, it is Pablo (Dimitri in the film) who suffers the infamous double amputation and Mathias who gets stabbed to death (these events happen to Mathias and Eric, respectively, in the film). Interestingly enough, the Greeks weren’t even in Scott Smith’s first draft of the screenplay. Carter Smith convinced him to add them back in in an effort to make it seem like there was hope for the protagonists (since the whole film sees the characters waiting for the Greeks coming to save them).
The biggest change that Scott Smith made in the screenplay was its ending, which was considerably more hopeful than the source material’s ending. On the film’s commentary, Carter Smith states that audience members would have walked out numb and unhappy had they stuck with the novel’s ending, which likely played apart in the drastic change. In the novel, Stacy is the last one left alive and, realizing that all hope is lost, sits on the path leading to the top of the hill (the “ruins” are just a grassy hill in the novel) and slits her wrists in the hope that her corpse will serve as a warning to future travelers. As she lies there bleeding out, the last thing she sees are the vines crawling over her face, dragging her back into the brush. The film opts for a more optimistic ending, seeing Amy escape the ruins, killing a few Mayans along the way. Dreamworks was no doubt fearful that audiences wouldn’t go for an extreme downer of the ending, especially considering the fact that MGM’s gamble with The Mist and its devastating ending failed to pay off just five months earlier. The unrated version of The Ruins features a slightly altered ending in which a vine is seen crawling under the skin of Amy’s face, but that didn’t test well (neither did another ending which saw the vines growing out of Amy’s grave in the U.S.). It doesn’t seem like the novel’s ending was ever once considered to be used in the film, which is disappointing.
Brought aboard to direct the film was fashion photographer Carter Smith. It would be his feature directorial debut, but the skill he showed on the short film Bugcrush is what got him the job. In fact, Steven Spielberg is the one who recommended Smith for the job! His background as a photographer also made him particularly adept at meticulously framing each and every shot of the film.
Rather than shoot The Ruins in Mexico, Queensland, Australia was chosen instead for a multitude of reasons: they had great crews, the jungle and beach were both within a 1-hour drive of the studio and, finally, the tax incentives. Academy Award-winning production designer Grant Major (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) was brought on to make the Australian landscape look like it was a Mexican jungle (the early scene in the “Mexican” village is a prime example of his spectacular work in the film). Filming took place in the summer of 2007, which unfortunately is winter in Australia. This meant that the nights were usually freezing. Not only can you can see how cold the actors are during the few nighttime scenes in the film, but they frequently had to be sprayed with water or olive oil (gross) to simulate sweat.
The Mayan ruins were made up of three separate sets. The first was the façade overgrown with vines for the characters to walk up and was built on an actual hill surrounded by trees. The second was the top of the temple, where the majority of the film takes place. This set was actually located at a different site than the temple’s base (which, Smith notes in the commentary, he hopes isn’t painfully obvious). The third set was used for the underground shaft and tunnel scenes (this was located at the studio). Shots that show the entire temple from a distance were a blend of the sets and CGI. The film’s ruins also differ from the novel’s ruins in that they are actual ruins. In the novel, the characters find themselves on a hill with a hole at the top. Carter Smith (rightfully) suggested making them actual ruins which was quickly approved by the creative team.
Carter Smith was able to round up a cast of attractive up-and-comers for the film. Cast as levelheaded Final Girl Amy was Jena Malone, who had made a name for herself in films like Saved!, Pride and Prejudice and Into the Wild. Laura Ramsey, who was recently seen in the cult favorite She’s the Man was cast as the doomed Stacy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Jonathan Tucker was cast as Amy’s doctor boyfriend Jeff and X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore was cast as Stacy’s boyfriend Eric. Finally, English actor Joe Anderson (Hannibal, Across the Universe) rounded out the cast as German tourist Mathias, who convinces the four friends to join him on his journey to the titular ruins.
The Ruins is notable for nearly all of its scenes taking place in the daylight, something that can be very difficult to make scary and is thus not often seen in horror films. In fact, natural light was used for pretty much every scene except the indoor scenes at the start of the film. This made shooting a bit of a challenge since every time the sun went behind the mountain the film had to stop production in an effort to maintain continuity. Director of photography Darius Khondji manages to capture the beauty and the isolation of the Mexican setting (this isn’t at all surprising considering he also shot The Beach, Seven and the Funny Games remake).
If you are going to have a movie about killer vines taken seriously, you have to pay extra special attention to every frame of the film where they were present. Carter Smith and his production crew knew this, and whether or not they were successful is up to the viewer. They went through the painstaking process of creating all of the vines that were present on screen. They even had a “Head Vine Maker” position (thanks Gary Cameron)! While some would say that the leaves on the vines looked like marijuana leaves (and many reviews did just that), their design was actually borrowed from the Tiarella leaf (more specifically, the Tiarella “Jeepers Creepers”). The vines themselves were modeled after pumpkin vines. Making them look as real as possible was especially important since the majority of the film takes place in direct sunlight, so if the plants looked fake it would be immediately obvious.
If you’re going to have a movie whose success hinges upon the believability of killer talking plants, then you’d better make sure they look as real as possible, especially during the money shots. The use of practical effects help tremendously with the believability of the film. There is very little actual CGI present, and it when it is used it is reserved for the shots of the moving plants. The biggest use of CGI is when the vines finally reveal themselves to be sentient (see below), but even then the darkness hides the CGI so well that it’s not that apparent that you’re watching CG effects. Nearly all of the gore effects were created using prosthetics, thanks to Australian native Jason Baird, but more on that in a bit.
The Marketing & the Aftermath
The film went through multiple test screenings in the weeks leading up to its release and while there wasn’t much changed based on the audience reactions, a few things were. For example, the opening scene of the film, in which a woman (whose body is later found by Amy and Stacy) is taken by the vines, was actually filmed long after principal photography was completed because viewers felt that it took too long to get to the actual horror in the film. As it stands, it takes about 50 minutes into the 93-minute film before the vines are even revealed to be sentient. Many viewers complained that the character of Amy was a “whiny bitch” and thus unlikable as the final girl (to be fair, she is far less obnoxious in the film than she is in the novel, mostly thanks to Malone’s performance). That perceived obnoxiousness is no doubt why she is the first to die in the novel, but I’d be interested to know why Scott Smith chose to make her be the film’s Final Girl. The test screenings also helped the studio see what was working in the film too. Hidden cameras in the theater revealed that the ringing flower reveal and the amputation scene always got the best reactions out of test screenings, but it all seemed for naught, as the marketing department failed to actually market the film effectively.
It is unclear whether or not Dreamworks had any faith in the film or if the marketing budget was minuscule but there was little to no fanfare surrounding the film’s release. In fact, I believe I only saw the trailer once at a theater and it was in front of Cloverfield, another 2008 Paramount release (Paramount had already purchased Dreamworks by this point). This lack of marketing could have been an issue of timing. If I recall correctly, more and more stories were coming out about American tourists disappearing while on vacation in Mexico in the months leading to the film’s release (not to mention the fact that the similarly-plotted Turistas has been released and flopped just a year and a half prior). The studio may have thought the horror would hit too close to home with American audiences, which would explain the casual way in which the film was seemingly buried. The trailer for the film was shorter than your average trailer (One minute and 11 seconds compared to the standard two and a half minutes) and barely gave the audience any hint as to what it was about. It could just be that the marketing department didn’t know how to sell a movie about killer vines without actually showing the killer vines.
The Ruins was released on April 4th, 2008 and grossed $8 million on its opening weekend, landing it in 5th place behind the card-counting drama 21 (in its second week of release), the family-friendly Nim’s Island and the football comedy Leatherheads (both in their first week of release) and the animated Horton Hears a Who! (in its fourth week of release). It was a tepid reception to say the least, but the fact that it was able to earn back its production budget helped make it a moderate success. Over the course of the next 11 weeks, The Ruins would go on to gross a total of $17.4 million domestically and $5.3 million internationally, for a worldwide total of $22.7 million ($26.3 million in 2018 dollars). It was no blockbuster, but it was a moderate success.
The box office earnings may have been serviceable, but the film failed to resonate with critics and audiences alike. Despite an okay Rotten Tomatoes score of 48%, it was widely panned by major critics at the time (the Top Critic score is a meager 21%).To top things off, opening weekend audiences awarded The Ruins a dreadful D+ CinemaScore. The Ruins seemed destine to fail though, as many reviews simply had a problem with the premise of killer plants (unoriginal comparisons to Little Shop of Horrors were not uncommon). In a film like this the actors have to make the audience believe that the threat is real. In the film’s commentary Carter Smith states that he was never worried about the comparisons between his film and Little Shop of Horrors because he felt the actors (especially Ramsey) do their part to make this threat seem real. Unfortunately, many critics disagreed. They just couldn’t get over the inherent silliness of sentient plants with a serious case of bloodlust.
- “When you’ve got cute young tourists, an exotic locale (well, sort of: Mexico), ancient Mayan hoodoo and surly peasants with machetes, you expect a bit more than The Ruins gives you, which is: killer plants.” (Kyle Smith, The New York Post)
- “The Ruins is lumpish, static, and obvious. It’s a gringos-go-home cautionary fright flick done in the spirit of a cheap ’50s horror movie, except that it leaves you longing for the competence of grade-Z studio-system trash.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
- “Not even a fixer-upper, The Ruins should be considered a complete tear-down.” (Mark Olsen, The Los Angeles Times)
- “While not as silly as it sounds, it nevertheless is silly (as are most horror films), and while certainly different, the payoff isn’t there.” (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter)
So what happened? How does a critically acclaimed novel that many agreed was one of the scariest novels of the year turn into a film that was perceived to be laughably un-scary by film viewers? Let’s look at where it all started: Scott Smith’s script.
Smith’s script isn’t perfect (though it’s not a bad script). On the contrary, condensing the novel actually proved to be problematic for the author. That’s what happens when you take a 319-page novel and condense it into a 93-minute movie though. The characters, so beautifully fleshed out in the novel, are reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes (the doctor, the tough guy, the damsel in distress, the final girl). They are all flawed and make terrible decisions (a complaint more often directed to the film than the novel), but reading about them allows you to understand them better than the film allows. Of course, the majority of the novel takes place inside the characters’ heads so adapting it was always going to be a challenge. It’s easy to believe a character is going mad or understand why they make a terrible decision when you can read what they are thinking. For a film to do that it requires a bit more work. With a longer runtime Smith could have devoted more time to such things, but Dreamworks probably thought that audiences didn’t want to watch a 2-hour movie about killer vines. In that regard they were probably right, but a longer runtime would have helped the film tremendously.
The film also loses a lot of the social commentary that helped elevate the novel above what some would call standard horror fare. Some of that commentary is still present in the film (Jeff’s unintentionally hilarious line “This doesn’t happen! Four Americans on vacation just don’t disappear!” springs to mind), but it is a considerably smaller part of the whole in the film.
The Bloody Bits
Where the film does succeed, however, is the gore. This isn’t to say that having gore improves the quality of a horror film, but it can be an important part of the genre. If done poorly, it can ruin a film. The gore in The Ruins is done very, very well. The film features two memorable set pieces, the first of which involves a double-amputation of Mathias’ legs that will unnerve even the most hardcore of horror fans. The scene, which took 9 hours to shoot, works so well simply because there is such a long build-up to the actual amputation. From the moment Mathias takes a swig of tequila, you being to steel yourself for the moment you know is coming. Smith drags it out for as long as he can before the first rock comes down on Mathias’ leg and even then, he doesn’t let up. It goes on and on. And just when you think the film will cut away before the second leg goes, it doesn’t. Carter Smith makes you witness every grueling moment and it’s glorious. It’s a visceral sequence that, funnily enough, was the first scene sent to the studio when they asked to see some footage from the film. Happy viewing!
The second set piece is actually two separate scenes, both involving cutting some vines out of Stacy’s body. The success of these sequences can be credited to Laura Ramsey’s outstanding performance and Jason Baird’s impressive prosthetic work. The first scene is when Eric cuts some pesky vines out of Stacy’s leg and back, and the other is a brutal moment of self-mutilation in which Stacy has had enough with the mischievous plant taking a self-guided tour under her skin. About 10 sets of prosthetic legs were used for the sequences, with the only instance of CGI being the tip of the vine squirming around as Eric pulls it out of her leg in the first scene. Both sequences are incredibly graphic, but they do not feel gratuitous, which is a testament to Carter Smith’s direction.
Flaws aside, it’s still surprising that The Ruins didn’t make more of a mark on the horror genre back in 2008. It’s especially surprising that it wasn’t more lovingly embraced by the horror community, as it features everything they could want from a genre film. It’s a creature feature where the creature just happens to be a plant. It’s incredibly gory and filled with top-notch practical effects. at 93 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Sure, the characters make dumb decisions, but that’s all part of the fun. While the idea of killer vines is inherently laughable, The Ruins manages to make them quite menacing. I’ve been singing the film’s praises ever since it was released (and if you haven’t read the novel, I implore you to do so), but even after all these years, it still manages to get under my skin.