Can a film have multiple personality disorder? Ruin Me certainly makes the case for yes.
Let’s bitch it out…
Ruin Me has one of the more intriguing horror movie premises in recent memory: a group of strangers volunteer to be stranded in the woods for a weekend, participating in a slasher-themed “escape room” adventure that may have caught the attention of an actual killer. The plot is tried and true (Strangers? Check; Woods? Check; Killer? Check) and, when coupled with an innovative topical angle (the escape room), it all makes perfect sense. Throw in some uncertainty about whether or not the murders are real or fake, and Ruin Me should take its place as the slasher version of Fincher’s The Game.
The film begins with average couple Nathan (Matt Dellapina) and Alex (Marcienne Dwyer) en route to the game’s starting rendezvous point. It is quickly revealed that Alex is a last minute addition to the trip: Nathan’s original partner fell ill and Alex stepped in to appease her long term (13 months) boyfriend, despite knowing virtually nothing about horror films. It’s fair to say that she is sheepish about the whole endeavour.
Alex is right to be cautious considering the odd group she’s forced to spend the weekend with: polyamorous “goth” couple Pitch (John Odom) and Marina (Eva Hamilton) are overly sexualized, Larry (Chris Hill) is likeable but extremely nerdy, and Tim (Cameron Gordon) is a monosyllabic weirdo and obvious social outcast.
With barely a moment to process the game’s rules and instructions, the group is hooded, restrained and dumped in the middle of the woods. Left to fend for themselves, Alex quickly proves her worth by solving a wordplay riddle, much to the chagrin of Pitch, the self-proclaimed master of escape room games. It’s not long before night falls and the first attack by a pair of masked men drives the group towards the safety of a campground complete with tents and a fire.
It’s here that writer/director Preston DeFrancis’ script (co-written with Trysta A. Bissett) lets its characters breathe. These scenes are necessary to help flesh out the broadly stereotyped characters and help make them more relatable. While some of the acting remains too broad (Odom is shrill and Gordon’s Tim is a non-entity), Larry emerges as an enjoyable secondary character and Marina’s vamp becomes more complicated by some forward-thinking, progressive sexual values. These scenes also highlight the cracks in Alex and Nathan’s seemingly healthy relationship, including some refreshingly realistic (and amusing) sex-talk. Overnight Alex has a nightmare that, when combined with the recurring plot device involving her pills, confirms that there is more to our Final Girl than meets the eye.
The narrative kicks into high gear in the morning when someone in the group disappears and Alex spots their body hanging in a tree. Naturally when the others arrive, the corpse is gone, prompting a rise in the “what is real?” questioning as the size of the group dwindles.
It’s at this point that Ruin Me takes a sharp, polarizing turn.
Without addressing the specifics of the players involved, Ruin Me briefly becomes a completely different film. In place of the woods, Alex finds herself awash on the beach. She’s confined by a chain attached to her foot. An unforeseen player is next to her and a moral quandary rests on her shoulder that involves a life or death decision. It’s a stand-out scene because it requires Alex, a character who has briefly been required to act with agency, to address her issues head-on in a way that is only required of protagonists.
But – and it’s a big but – the scene also feels like it is from a completely different film. The single closest comparison is the Saw franchise and while Ruin Me is certainly not as malicious in its intent or visceral in its depiction of violence, the change in tone is drastic. It’s an interesting, albeit jarring scene that the remainder of Ruin Me can’t quite overcome, even as the film hurtles towards its somewhat predictable “twist” ending.
DeFrancis and Bissett’s script never quite recovers its footing, resulting in a climactic chase that feels too drawn out (despite DeFrancis’ attempt to keep the film’s flagging energy up). Following a momentary reprieve, there’s also an extended denouement that ties back into the polarizing scene which brings the film to a muted, convoluted close.
Despite the polarizing scene, there’s a lot to recommend about Ruin Me. First and foremost: it looks great. For a first time feature, DeFrancis set himself a challenge, filming almost entirely outdoors in both day and night (there’s even some underwater work!). As lead, Dwyer absolutely anchors the film, delivering a standout performance in an arc that requires her to evolve from meek, accommodating girlfriend to frantic, powerhouse Final Girl. The plot also gets a fair amount of mileage out of the uncertainty if the events of the game are real or not, which helps to smooth out some the broader acting and pacing issues.
The Bottom Line: Ruin Me* has a solid central conceit, a strong performance by Marcienne Dwyer and a great visual look. Audiences are apt to be divided by the film’s polarizing change in direction mid-film and the climax/denouement could use a trim to help the sluggish pacing at the end.
*One final issue: the name. Much like another solid feature making the festival rounds (Future), this title simply doesn’t capture the spirit of the film (it’s a throwaway line of dialogue about the anticipated impact of the weekend on Alex). As another review comments, the name of the event – Slasher Sleepout – is far catchier (and sellable). As a title, Ruin Me isn’t distinctive; it just feels…flat.
Ruin Me is playing Hexploitation Film Festival on Sunday, March 25 at 7pm.