Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Ruins

I find most modern American horror films to be dispiriting rather than frightening, and while watching The Ruins, I had an epiphany. At its core, the genre has always had a close relationship with fairy tales, and in this way, it's always been moralistic, wagging its finger at the arrogance of those who would dare cross societal boundaries. Of course, the subject of its moralizing is ever-changing with the times--horror films of the 30s had, among other things, a fascinating ethnocentric dread (beware the swarthy Romanians!), the horror of the 80s punished those who indulged in the sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll lifestyle of the 60s (ladies, stay chaste!), and so on. In The Ruins, the decision to explore the ancient culture of Mexico, rather than remain shallow, uncultured tourists at a beach resort, is the decision that dooms its college kids. By itself, this is an anti-intellectual message (another staple attitude of the genre), but pair it with other recent films like Hostel where characters are punished for their exploitation of foreigners by remaining shallow, uncultured tourists, and you have the beginnings of what seems to be the modern horror movie's message: Don't do anything at all. Stay where you are.

Give it credit, even while indulging this sort of xenophobic terror, The Ruins manages to make flowers kind-of scary. Not "I'll never feel safe at the florist's again!" scary, but, at least, "Hey, Main Character, look out behind you, there're flowers there!" scary. The Ruins is about a group of college kids who, while vacationing in Mexico, take a trip to an ancient Mayan pyramid that lies unexplored and uncharted. It's not, we're told, on any maps, so the knowledge of its existence is passed along like a bootleg concert recording, with rudimentary maps passed down to the curious from insiders. When the youngsters get there, they're forced to the top of the pyramid by some gun-toting Mayans who then set up camp at the pyramid's base, killing all who come back down. Thus trapped and with no cell phone signal (this lack of a cell phone signal has become as trite as the invader cutting the phone lines... can we find something else to do with cell phones, please?), the collegiates must fend for their survival, find water and food, and wait for rescue. Meanwhile, the local foliage seems to be trying to eat them.

These carnivorous plants are, by far, the best part of the film. The flowering vines delight in blood, and they move, indifferent and innocuous, toward each freshly-spilled pool. Their casual, reliable reaction to the suffering of the humans is (I'd wager) intentionally funny; the film is aware of the silliness of a group of vines slithering toward a freshly severed limb, so what could have been a laughable attempt to scare instead becomes darkly comic and even endearing. Goofier still is the narrative invention that the flowers of these vines have gained the ability to mimic the sounds around them, but this too emerges as more creepshow fun than implausible stupidity. The reveal of this trait happens in a nifty bit of sound design--each flower, by itself, seems to sound off just a fragment of the noise being mimicked, so, the full sound is achieved when all the flowers noise in unison. It's not all laughs, though; they're creepy little creepers. They're ubiquitious and unceasing. After spending a night on the pyramid, one of the college kids wakes up to find that some of the vines have crept upon her overnight and inserted their stalks into some recently-sustained wounds. Worse, the plants are thriving, reproducing within her bloodstream itself. The inexorable threat of the plants is about the only thing that pops up above an otherwise formulaic survival horror story. It's certainly a much better eco-threat than the one in The Happening, anyway.

Nevertheless, the film is suffused with the sense that nothing matters, that the characters have no agency. Each idea they employ to deal with their predicament is about equal in terms of whether or not it's a good or bad idea, and the success or failure of their ideas seems entirely up to the dictates of chance or, as it were, the screenwriter. In this case, the screenwriter is a punishing fellow, and none of their ideas have any degree of success (up until the last one), and so the movie just hops from one kind of hopelessness to another. There's no sense of building action or increasing horror, just a steady drone of people screaming as each fresh, random horror is visited upon them. This is getting increasingly typical--The Strangers, for all its craft, had the same problem--and it's why the net effect of modern horror films seems to be saying, "Give up. Stop trying. Whatever you do, it's going to result in the same thing." That there is, eventually, a plan that works seems as much an accident as anything else in the film (it's also a betrayal of what we've been told about the Mayan force at the base of the pyramid), and, so, The Ruins falls flat on even providing a catharsis.

What we're left with is another film that sees the very act of doing things and going about your business as a punishable act of hubris. Rather than being frightening, these films just leave me numb--as in the rancid, unforgivable ending of The Mist, the twists of fate are often as absurd as an old Warner Brothers Cartoon. Characters are punished not for any transgressions, but for lacking omniscience. They turn left instead of right and, so, get eaten by goblins. Someone bites into a cracker and an anvil falls on their foot. If only they'd have known! Bad, arbitrary things happen to people all the time, it's true, but most modern horror films seem to be content to simply state this and then nod knowingly. "Whaddya gonna do?" they say, shrugging. They don't provide us with stakes through the heart or "shoot them in the head!" There's nothing to be done. The bad guys are out there, and they will get us no matter who we are or what we might learn. In a world in which the earth that once nourished us turns noxious and the government unapologetically tortures in our name, it's pointless--these films show us--to do anything. The Ruins and its ilk offer us a justification for surrender to the perils of living, a way to excuse one's apathy in the face of violation. Ok, now I'm scared.