I think what's most unusual is this horror film was produced by comedian Ben Stiller. Thankfully, he's not in the film. That would have killed any hope for horror. Some comedians can do any genre because they're good actors. I'm not sure Ben is one of them.
Based on the novel by Scott Smith who also wrote the screenplay, four college-age Americans on vacation in Mexico visit an ancient Mayan temple and become trapped there. The two young couples become hostages by a tribe that won't allow them to leave.
Yet, what's interesting is that despite our empathizing with the four youngsters, and the clear adversarial situation, the writer doesn't establish clear good guys or bad guys. You're initially creeped out and terrified of the tribe of Mexicans, but after a while you come to understand that they're not the villains.
They, like the four Americans, are just trying to survive and protect themselves. Without revealing too much of the plot, I will say that this film is very much like an episode of The X-Files called "Field Trip" about some human hikers who become the food for a very different kind of Venus Flytrap.
On the DVD commentary, openly gay director Carter Smith, a former fashion photographer, refers to the film as a more serious Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Smith directed a short film called Bugcrush (2006), which got accepted into Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival. Steven Spielberg saw that film and it subsequently got Smith this job.
Bugcrush involved a gay teen that becomes victimized not by plant life, but by means of an insect. Smith seems to have a fascination with natural objects being a danger to humans, or, in this case, nature turning on mankind and proving that we may not always be at the top of the food chain.
It's a theme that's echoed in Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), which may have been why Spielberg's company chose to produce this unlikely horror story. It doesn't have the scope or special effects of that Spielbergian adventure, but it does have a whole lot of blood and gore.
Yet, it's not merely a splatter film. It wasn't overly gratuitous. It's a survival story that doesn't exist only to slaughter a bunch of attractive young people, as a slew of recent horror films do. The blood and gore are intense, but make sense.
Director Carter Smith said he wished that the story was more dog-eat-dog, the idea that humans will lose all civility and start turning on and devouring each other when completely cut off from society and their lives threatened by forces beyond any control.
I think Smith touches upon it briefly and subtly, and this may be a good thing because so many other films have dealt with it in so many better ways. Smith really focuses on the interactions of the four kids who comprise his very sexy cast and that's probably good enough.
Jonathan Tucker (Hostage and The Deep End) stars as Jeff, a medical student who seemingly loves his girlfriend, Amy, played by Jena Malone (Saved! and Life As a House), but there's some reticence initially for him. Amy is getting drunk on the beach and flirting with some German tourist and Jeff just goes back to his hotel room without saying anything.
Shawn Ashmore (X-Men 2 and 3 Needles) plays Eric who seems to be on more solid ground with his girlfriend, Stacy, played by Laura Ramsey (Lords of Dogtown and The Convenant). They seem closer, more unshakeable. The dynamic that is forced when these two become trapped in the ruins, as opposed to Jeff and Amy, is surprising.
In fact, Ramsey's performance toward the end may be the most compelling of all, as paranoia and madness overtake her, endangering her life as well as those around her. It reminded me of Ashley Judd's performance in William Friedkin's Bug (2007). It was well done.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated R for gruesome images and some nudity
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.