Back around the time it was released in 2006, Stephen King praised The Ruins as “The best horror novel of the new century.” That ringing endorsement—along with some guidance from my knowledgeable horror peers over on Dreadit—lured me in to Scott Smith’s bleak adventure-death tome about a group of twentysomething Cancun holidayers who go off the beaten path and find themselves trapped in the third-circle of hell.
Naive tourists, secret treasure maps, locals warning of doom in broken English, Venus flytraps on meth—The Ruins has all the bases covered when it comes to setting the stage for a hellish foray into a nightmarish look at trouble in paradise.
Premise: A pair of young American couples go to Cancun right before their post-collegiate lives are about to start. They meet a solemn German fellow and a trio of horny Greek dudes. Tequila beach parties and drunken hookups ensue.
It’s a generally lazy, uninspired vacation—that is until the German says his brother has gone missing after venturing inland with a hot archaeologist to study some ancient Mayan ruins. To shake the group out of its static, drunken stupor, one of the Americans suggests they all hunt down the missing pair. A few ratty dirt roads and a trudge through mosquito-ridden jungles and sweltering heat later, they arrive at death’s doorstep. I’ll leave the rest to the reader/viewer.
As for drawbacks, as long as you’re aware that this book is more guilty beach-read horror-thriller than it is literary opus on the psychology of post-collegiate travelers trapped in the perilous hazards of a shitty hangover, there aren’t many. It might, however, dissuade some potential readers to hear that The Ruins is—rather inexplicably—sexist as fuck.
Of the four main characters, two are typecast as stupid women with as much dimension as the backside of a broken Teva. One is the nagging, complaining worrywart. The other is the promiscuous ditz, Stacy, nicknamed “Spacey.” She cheats on her boyfriend with random guys, jerks off a dying guy in a tent, and thinks about jerking off another dying guy outside of a tent.
The book even acknowledges her smutttiness in a sequence where one of the male leads speculates on who each of their characters would be in the film adaptation of this story: “Well, there are two female parts, right? So one of you will have to be the good girl, the prissy one, and the other one’ll have to be the slut.” He continues, “The slut has to die. No question. Because you’re bad. You have to be punished.” Perhaps this is supposed to be some tongue-in-cheek self-affrontery by the writer, but it really just follows in line with one of the guiding themes of the book: That Scott Smith hates women.
There’s also sacrilege within the pages of The Ruins. In one particularly disturbing scene, our adventurers burn a copy of The Sun Also Rises. Such cruel injustice to the great Hemingway is perhaps the novel’s most vulgar and irreverent bit of savagery.
OK, feminist and blasphemous grievances aside, it’s incredible how taut and compelling this book stays through its 369 small-print pages. I mention that number only because my favorite horror novel of all-time, Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, weighs in at a relatively pithy 160.
And this is where I need to confess that I’m not much of a horror reader. Sure, I devoured every John Bellairs and R.L. Stine book as a pre-pubescent (well, at least the first 35 or so in the Goosebumps series), but I’ve actually never read a Stephen King novel. I know, I know.
I guess I’m saying all this to point to the fact that I have no place quantifying King’s claim on The Ruins’ place in the post-millennial horror landscape. But… if you want to read an insanely dark, fiendishly thrilling page-turner about a bunch of college kids getting offed in the wilds of Mexico, Smith’s book is a poolside read for the ages.
Now on to The Ruins, the 2008 film directed by Carter Smith (no relation to the author), which you can currently find on HBOGo. I have to approach this on two levels: First, what I recall from watching it when it came out, and second, upon viewing it hours after finishing Scott Smith’s novel.
The early memories go like this: 1. Decent adventure-horror flick with a great premise despite some canned performances and a rather formulaic, anti-climactic finish. 2. A then-unknown Laura Ramsey having a really hot bedroom scene. 3. Good special effects for the time period. 4. Laura Ramsey being really hot.
As for my feelings on the film after reading the novel, it was much harder to digest. I understand that condensing 369 pages into 90 minutes is no small feat, but the ever-expanding and unsettling fear that is the foundation of the novel is all but lost here. Also, everything is dumbed the fuck down. In opposition to the book’s patient character studies, the film’s protagonists have the depth of a flip-flop footprint on hard sand. If the novel is, as I said, a beach read, then the film is more akin to a third-grade-level picture book. There is nothing the least bit heady going on here.
As for upsides, a then slightly unknown Jena Malone delivers a standout scream-queen performance amidst a morass of shirtless Ambercrombie models who look like they just walked out of their first casting call. There’s also kind of a neat nostalgic genre element here for me. The Ruins was filmed in the aftermath of a long-running period of PG-13-ish films based on young adult novels that were basically platforms for mildly spooky thrills and, more often that not, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s boobs (see: I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know…, and every other Lois Duncan-esque adaptation). These were campy, commercialized genre flicks targeting an audience of 12-to-15 year old boys, and I certainly took the bait hook, line and sinker.
The Ruins has the feel of those blockbuster-horror flicks of the late ’90s—specifically in their fixation with really hot damsels in distress, heroic shirtless bros who can’t act (#nodisrepecttofreddieprinzejr), and a level of predictability and campy bloodiness that was a far-cry from the torture-porn turn that occurred with the onset of films like Saw (2004). So yeah, if you were a child of the ‘90s, The Ruins definitely has a bit of throwback flair to the days when your lunch hours were spent debating whether you were going to marry Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar. (You don’t really get ’90s nods these days, with every director focused on making their horror flick look straight out of John Carpenter’s ’80s.)
But speaking of the Saws and Hostels and that whole torture-porn era that began to rake in big box office bucks in the early aughts, The Ruins goes there a bit as well. It has all the hallmarks, including gruesome decapitation, nudity, and abject human misery. So it’s kind of an interesting inter-decade middle-ground movie, if you look at it from that perspective. Or maybe it’s just campy horseshit. You choose.
In terms of the question of where to start—book or movie—I’m assuming most people reading this have already seen the flick. Not to worry. Many details both narratively and in terms of Scott Smith’s distinctive ability to get into a character’s head, are completely lost in the film.
And some names and fates are changed around, presumably so as not to play spoiler to Scott Smith’s loyal readers. I’m not saying the movie isn’t worth watching after reading, but the reason I got started on this whole post is simply to direct you toward an extremely engaging and perfectly accessible horror novel that, as you sit hotel-poolside sipping your fifth piña colada this summer, will make you very glad that you chose the comfy all-inclusive package instead of taking the road less traveled.
Novel by Scott Smith, 2006
GRADE: A / A-
Directed by Carter Smith, 2008