H. L. Mencken once said that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people, and nothing seems to bear this statement out quite as perfectly as the current trend in truly schlocky Americans-abroad horror films. Recent examples include Hostel, Turistas, and now The Ruins, a dopey, ridiculous amalgamation of Cabin Fever, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and Little Shop of Horrors. Needless to say, I don’t anticipate The Ruins making it onto my year-end top ten list, and neither do I recommend seeing this film unless you’re looking for an extreme—perhaps the ultimate—experience of mindless viewing. However, it represents what seems to be a rapidly expanding corner of the horror film market, and is thus at least worthy of examination, if not patronage.
The film begins with two couples—the female half of one being Jena Malone, who seems aware she’s being exploited by the role—vacationing in sunny Mexico together, where the sand is warm but the water, we’re told, “will give you hepatitis.” The two couples are straight out of the low-budget screenwriter’s playbook; one is happy, the other is on the rocks, and the two pairs are even color-coded, blonde and brunette, for our viewing convenience. Malone’s character is the protagonist of sorts, but it’s rather hard to tell at times; the film’s narrative is so flimsy and the characters so one-dimensional that it’s hard to work up any feeling at all about any of it. There’s no one to care about within the story, but there’s not really anyone to loathe either—there isn’t even a scary monster to grab our attention. After a few deaths, some gratuitous gore, the revelation that the evil of the film is horticultural in origin (yes, you read that correctly: evil plants!) we’re left with no more than the suggestion that, deep in the Central American jungle, there are some things that are best left alone by nice White Americans.
And it’s here that the film crosses the line between being innocuously stupid and tacitly implying that the people inhabiting the jungle (who, naturally, are portrayed as stereotyped “evil natives”) are the real threat; that the Ruins are scary not because they represent the savagery of civilizations past, but because they symbolize the intrinsic inner savagery of the modern jungle-dwellers. Indeed, the parade of victims who venture into the Ruins never to return are, we’re repeatedly told, members of the “civilized” Western cultures: Americans, Germans, Greeks. Juxtaposed with the evil natives, who wield arrows and pistols simultaneously, and babble incoherently without the courtesy of subtitles, the specificity of the White characters’ origins begins to make sense. Succinctly, if the film had been made by the team behind South Park, it would be called Colonize This!
The reason that Mencken’s statement deserves particular attention in relation to films like The Ruins and Hostel (where the locus of evil is the former Soviet Bloc) is that the totality of the (negligible) horror they evoke is directly related to their protagonists’ American citizenship. The conceit powering these films is a deeply narcissistic, hypocritical national dogma which insists that the sorts of things which occur in these films—torture, captivity, general degradation—are things that just shouldn’t happen to Americans, no matter where they go. Thus, Hostel and Turistas and The Ruins are “horror movies” simply because they show such things happening to Americans, over and over, for an hour and a half; the tragic part is that they’re not even aware of the ideological project they’re engaged in. And while it’s certainly true that America is far from alone in its prodigious production of terrible films, it’s hard to imagine another country where sheer national paranoia can be writ so large and still taken so seriously.