There's a useful old analogy stating that when a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it's placed in cold water that's heated slowly, it will stay in the pot until it's boiled alive. The genius of Scott Smith's pulp horror novel The Ruins is that it turns readers into frogs: Pick up the story halfway through, and it's impossible not to giggle at the concept of sentient, man-eating vines attacking tourists at a Mayan pyramid. But starting from page one, Smith gradually eases into a situation that seems ludicrous on its face, yet plays out with slow-burning tension and ever-deepening dread. By the end, the vines could be singing "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" from Little Shop Of Horrors, and they'd still seem menacing.
Adapting The Ruins into a movie presents a host of obstacles, not least the prospect of audiences laughing it off the screen like nothing since the jungle terrors of Congo. But director Carter Smith suffers from another, more common problem: In trying to squeeze every plot point from the book into a 90-minute movie, he failed to capture its chilling essence. His lack of attention to patient characterization and atmosphere-building is evident from the first few scenes, which frantically sketch a cast of gorgeously toned vine-bait. Looking for adventure, a group of tourists at a Mexican resort set out to a remote archeological site to help a new friend find his brother. To put it as crudely as the film does, they are: Boy Scout (Jonathan Tucker), Complainy (Jena Malone), Beardy (Shawn Ashmore), the Blonde (Laura Ramsey), and the German (Joe Anderson).
In compressing the novel down to a sloppy abridgement, the film fails to capture the eerie portent of its setting: a Mayan area so severed from modern culture and language that it's almost otherworldly, a stark contrast from the pampered beach scenes of Cancun and Acapulco. The Ruins is a reminder of how horror is a director's genre; there's nothing particularly amiss in the storytelling, except for a dumb Hollywood ending, but the film fails to draw out the thick jungle atmosphere, the characters' gnawing starvation and dehydration, or the fear that swells when day creeps into night. We frogs needn't worry, because the water never reaches the boiling point.