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This horror film gets it right
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The Ruins

(R)

**** (out of 5)

Starring

Jonathan Tucker

as Jeff

Jena Malone

as Amy

Shawn Ashmore

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as Eric

Laura Ramsey

as Stacy

Joe Anderson

as Mathias

Dimitri Baveas

as Dimitri

Studio: Dreamworks

Directed by: Carter Smith

By KEVIN CARR

I've always been a fan of horror movies, and this is why I've been so disgruntled about them lately. It's not that Hollywood has ever been that restrained with making knock-off films. Cheap remakes, lame sequels and substandard knock-offs have been going on in this town since the 1940s. (Does anyone remember "Son of Dracula" with Lon Chaney, Jr.?)

So when a great horror movie comes down the pike, it deserves notice. For every 10 Halloween remakes you have to sit through, Hollywood will occasionally deliver an outstanding thriller that rises above the rest, even if it uses material that we've seen before.

When I first saw the trailers for "The Ruins," I thought it would be nothing more than another version of Turistas. And the movie definitely starts out that way. A group of aloof American spring breakers are sunning themselves in a Mexican resort when a new friend convinces them to join him on a trip to see a forgotten Mayan ruin.

We've seen the kids in peril many times before. And even the horror-on-the-ziggurat has been done before with Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." But the brilliance of "The Ruins" is that the filmmakers didn't try to overblow the horror.

The kids aren't kidnapped by a bunch of savages. Rather, when they reach the Mayan pyramid, they are trapped there by some villagers. Under the threat of death, the kids go to the top of the pyramid and soon learn their fate. Something is waiting in the pyramid for them, and soon they learn they are in for a horrible death.

Director Carter Smith does the horror right, borrowing from Hitchcock rather than Rob Zombie. Instead of having things jump out at you from around every corner, the suspense is a slow build throughout the film. The monster-in-waiting isn't hidden, but rather in plain sight, and when it attacks, it does so with slow and steady determination.

"The Ruins" is the first great horror film of 2008 because it did everything right. There's violence and gore, but it is achingly necessary to tell the story. And as bad and as chilling as things get, it could easily have been worse. But then again, by not showing everything all the time, the movie is that much more chilling.

Ultimately, most of the film takes place on this pyramid, and that's a feat of directing considering I never got tired of the location or bored with the action. Where Will Smith had all of New York as a backdrop in "I Am Legend," these kids only have the top of a ziggurat, and they make things so much more interesting.

Like Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever," "The Ruins" serves as a modern slasher film with an almost unseen enemy. It follows the slasher model, but by presenting it in a unique location, it is given new life. Much like last year's "Vacancy," the filmmakers went back to the suspense well to make a relatively tired concept work anew.

Rarely does a horror movie do everything right, but this one does -- even going as far to giving us the gratuitous nude scene with Laura Ramsey. In a year of male nudity in film, it's nice to see some wonderful female nudity for a change.

"The Ruins" is one of the creepiest, most disturbing tales to hit theaters in months. The last time I saw such a visceral, effective thriller was when Neil Marshall released "The Descent." It's bleak and it's gory, and if there is a film that is guaranteed to make your skin crawl, this one is it.

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