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By Lawrence Ferber
The Mexican city of Cancun is a favorite destination of sun worshippers and spring breakers for its welcoming white-sand beaches. Yet something frightful also exists here, amidst the sandy stretches and nearby Mayan ruins – an almost shingles-inducing demonic terror: quintessentially middle-American chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, Bubba Gump and Applebee’s.
Openly gay director Carter Smith acknowledges the fear these establishments strike into his heart – “I’m most afraid of T.G.I. Friday’s,” he bristles – but he decided to bring a different, fortunately fictitious horror to screen with his scream-triggering feature debut, “The Ruins.”
Adapted from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Smith’s bestselling novel, “The Ruins,” the movie, which opens April 4, follows two couples – best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and their respective boyfriends, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) – as they vacation in sun-kissed Cancun. Joined by a couple of fellow tourists (Joe Anderson and Dimitri Baveas) hoping to see Mayan ruins, the group veers off the beaten path into the Mexican jungle. They indeed find rare, hidden ruins, and something they won’t be as delighted to discover: a creeping evil that literally gets under your skin. As the situation grows dire and survival instinct kicks in, it becomes apparent that there are even more threats within the jungle.
“I think it’s a good date movie, because it’s literally the type of film where people are constantly grasping people’s hands,” Carter enthuses. “It’s a very physical movie. Anything that provokes such a strong physical reaction is a good date movie – if they end up in your lap, that can be fun.”
Prior to filmmaking, the Maine-born Smith had established himself as a fashion and celebrity photographer. After moving to NYC in 1989, he briefly studied photography and fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but ultimately dropped out. Shortly thereafter, he landed professional gigs, shooting spreads for the likes of Vogue, GQ, and W magazine, commercials, and music videos. He also stretched his budding directorial chops during photo sessions with actors like Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt.
“Brad Pitt, he makes an impression,” Smith says. “Utterly charming, so sexy, really charismatic. You realize movie stars really are a different breed of people. But what’s fun for me working with actors is they enjoy taking on the part of a character and not necessarily being themselves. Like, ‘You’re the sleazy nightclub owner who has a crush on the waitress.’
“Whatever it is, I try and come up with some sort of narrative that informs the pictures, which makes it that much easier for them to play along for the camera.”
Smith’s two attractive male leads should prove familiar to queer audiences. Tucker played Tilda Swinton’s gay son in 2001’s noir thriller, “The Deep End.” And Ashmore played Iceman in the “X-Men” series and an HIV-infected porn star in 2005’s “3 Needles.” Yet despite the fact the actors reveal some skin, the film’s harrowing, gruesome moments are sure to provide the most heart palpitations. And if the filmmakers needed any reminders that nature can be frightful and deadly, they found them on set. Queensland, Australia stood in for the Mexican jungle, and it happens that Australia and its coast are home to the world’s most diverse assortment of deadly creatures – which occasionally made unannounced cameo appearances during the shooting.
“We’d arrive in the morning and there’d be a 22-foot python stretched across the access road to the set,” Carter recalls. “We had a very busy safety crew that kept us safe at all times, and they were very careful to not make a big deal of it so everybody wouldn’t get freaked out. Like, OK, let’s not broadcast the fact there’s a poisonous spider under every rock in this field.
“Not good for cast morale when they’re having to roll around on the ground in their underwear.”