This is a grouping that could, just as easily include the Tarantino/Rodriguez joint, From Dusk 'til Dawn. It has monsters in Mexico, Americans in trouble over their heads, and what the hell, an ancient pyramid. So do these films, except unlike From Dusk 'Til Dawn, which I now consider a modern classic, you're much less likely to have heard of either of these, and that's where I step in. I am, after all, here to help.
The Ruins - 2008
Written by Scott B Smith
Directed by Carter Smith
The Ruins is, in many ways, a fairly typical horror movie. Take a group of not-particularly-likeable college students on vacation and kill them off in an isolated location. What makes it a little scarier and a little more interesting than that formula usually is are a few little twists and variations along the way.
Things start out not-very-promisingly, with two college couples vacationing in a fairly secure and homogenized Mexican resort. I've never been able to figure out whether horror movies deliberately make these characters unpleasant so that we won't care when they start getting killed off, or if they're simply trying to present members of their target viewing demographic in an identifiable way, and it's merely high school and college-aged human beings that suck in a more general sense. Nevertheless, we get to meet them and learn that they're spoiled and arrogant. They meet Matthias, a German traveler who's less frivolous, but no more charismatic. He's planning to join his brother at an archaeological dig at a previously unknown pyramid in the jungle and invites them to get away from the resort and see something real. And thus our stage is set, although, frankly, not very intriguingly so far.
The next day (after some interpersonal drama), their little group has to overpay a driver to take them anywhere near the site, then hike the rest of the way in. They find a pyramid covered with vines, and no apparent sign of Matthias' brother and associates. The moment they approach the pyramid, they're surrounded by a group of natives, waving guns and arrows, and shouting at them in their tribal tongue, so their intentions are difficult to ascertain under the circumstances, but clearly all is not what it appears. Misunderstandings go from bad to worse, and someone ends up getting shot. The vacationers retreat up the pyramid, where the natives are unable, or unwilling to follow.
So, obviously there is something about the pyramid that scares the natives, and we have a group of young people who are destined to get killed off one by one. We, as film-goers, have been here before. But it's in the how that things get interesting, but that's also where the secrets are. It's ordinarily my practice to spoil movies as little as possible. Unfortunately, with The Ruins, to explain what's good about it requires me to spoil that a little bit, so this is your fair warning; skip the rest of the article if you don't want spoilers.
Atop the pyramid, our group of imperiled white kids find signs that Matthias' brother and team have been there, but disappeared, and probably in a hurry. Deep inside a shaft in the pyramid, they can hear the occasional ringing of a cell phone, despite the fact that none of the rest of them have been able to get service. What becomes evident to us long before it becomes obvious to the characters is what kind of threat the pyramid contains.
Going into the movie, I had no idea what the menace was, and I feared that it might be a giant snake. It's not a giant snake. It's not an alligator. It's not a cult or a mummy or a ghost, although up until their descent into the pyramid, it could have been almost anything. What it is, instead, is the vines themselves. They're aggressive, but most terrifyingly, they act as a contagion, getting into human bodies and growing rapidly beneath the skin. This gives The Ruins its most disturbing element, because it's not a matter of vines jumping out and simply strangling their victims, but infecting them, and leaving the humans living in terror and desperately struggling to find a way out of their grisly fate. It's far more gruesome to try to extract a vine growing under your friend's skin -- or your own -- than to merely be strangled by one. That's where The Ruins becomes something cleverer than it initially represented itself to be. If the writer had actually bothered to flesh out his plot and characters more deeply, this could have been a truly great horror movie rather than merely a surprisingly decent one.
There now, I didn't spoil as much as I thought I'd have to. So, The Ruins doesn't have good characters. That may not matter in ways, because you get to look forward to them dying. However, if they had been better characters, the horror of what they go through would be even harder hitting. The story isn't remotely original (vacationing young people get picked off), and while that might be semi-unavoidable given the conventions of the genre, a little bit of cleverness could have gone a long way here. Why did they have to be vacuous college kids (other than that also being the film's key demographic)? Why not the initial archeological team, or urban Mexicans enjoying their own country, or missionaries, or smugglers, or Hondurans emigrating to America, or, or OR...? The fact is, they could have come up with a hundred different back stories (and yes, I know the real reason they're all pretty young white people) for their leads, but instead they offered us an effortless reprise of what we've seen over and over already. Perhaps I'm being too hard on them here, given that The Ruins came out before The Cabin in the Woods, which did a pretty good job of stripping down the "5 isolated young people get killed" horror movie trope. What The Ruins did RIGHT, however, was the fear, the desperation, the skin-crawling dread and the deeply unnerving viscera, and for that, it definitely deserves a nod, because after all, it IS a horror movie.
Monsters - 2010
Written & Directed by Gareth Edwards
Monsters is a small story set against a big backdrop.
The backdrop is pure sci-fi, in which a meteor has fallen to Earth, giving rise to a plague of giant monsters (think massive glowing octopods that can walk on land) throughout northern Mexico. Due to this "infection," the United States has bombed the area heavily, and built a "border fence" that would be the stuff of conservatives' wettest dreams.
Speaking of other giant monster movies, writer & director Gareth Edwards was hired off of Monsters to direct 2014's revival of Godzilla, with two-hundred times the budget. In addition to writing and directing Monsters, Edwards also served as his own Director of Photography, Production Designer and Visual Effects artist, using a store bought laptop and retail effects software. Well, the film is gorgeous, and the effects are used sparingly, in service to the narrative. Adolescent cases looking for mass destruction are going to feel betrayed by Monsters. Then they're going to get angry and better when they realize that Monsters is better than them. But that's not you, is it? You, my friend, appreciate a thoughtful tale of humanity and the beauty of well-photographed wilds and ruination with a high-concept wrinkle that both evokes and eschews obvious allegory. For all the grand scale of its premise, perhaps the biggest surprise of Monsters is what a well-made and beautifully small film that it is.