The current political climate has many calling out both the disparities between and the cannibalizing effect of the rich on the poor. As such, the horror subgenre of variations on “The Most Dangerous Game” is evergreen and ever-growing. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett add another banger to the pool with READY OR NOT, a gloriously blood-soaked good time.
Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) are joining together in wedded bliss, and they couldn’t be happier. They come from different sides of the tracks; she of a hard-knock life in the foster care system, and he of a filthy rich dynasty. Alex is a La Domas, a powerful clan descended from a board game magnate. As such, the La Domas have a rich tradition of game-playing, both tabletop and active. Just after the nuptials, Alex casually drops a quirky request of his bride: His family has a ritual that demands that the new family addition take part in a midnight game on the night of the wedding. Grace shrugs it off as goofy in-law shenanigans, and accepts. It’s simple: The person who marries into the family picks a card from a cryptic, ancient box that will then decide the game. Unfortunately, Grace pulls the one card that demands her own sacrifice: Hide and Seek. The rules: She can hide anywhere in the house, and must evade capture until dawn. Only after the accidental death of a nanny does Grace learn how high the stakes are: The entire family is armed to the teeth and on the prowl to make the blushing bride a sacrifice to Satan.
The summary has its well-trodden elements and requires a top-notch cast to make its characters leap from the pages of a capable script. Samara Weaving is both lynchpin and supernova, bringing doe-eyed humanity and white-hot stage presence to her starring role as Grace. In the 95-minute runtime, her range runs from HIS GIRL FRIDAY wit to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?-level hysterics; a third act moment has Weaving channeling Winona Ryder in HEATHERS as the cherry on top. Adam Brody’s bourbon-soaked performance as Daniel, brother of the groom (and the only other La Domas with a conscience) is a welcome anchor to the Dastardly Whiplashes and Cruella De Villes that make up the rest of the family. The antagonists are numerous, but distinct enough to be their own CLUE suspects. Screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy even go the extra mile to add in a comic relief to the comedy; Kristian Bruun’s Fitch is the spectator personified, asking the obvious questions anyone in the audience might be wondering as each scene plays out and thus getting the biggest laughs of the lot. Were it not for the heavy character work here, the gags would never stick their landings, and so a tip of the hat is due all around.
The-rich-hunt-the-poor films tend to have a sharp satirical bite to them, as recently as Guto Parente’s THE CANNIBAL CLUB. READY OR NOT opts for a lighter touch, adding in the economic gulf for humor and character-building in addition to socio-political commentary. Busick and Murphy take aim at bootstrap mentality; the La Domas Dominion, as they prefer to be named, “earned” their vast wealth from a crossroads deal with the Devil, the very reason why the family is compelled to play the wedding night games over the years. A hunting accident (if you can call it that) or two reveals that the elite family sees the help as subhuman, to be tossed aside like rag dolls and barely a word of remorse. Grace finds no quarter with them, despite her humble background; on more than one occasion, maids and butlers dime her out, a vexing statement on how the poor will eat their own to curry favor with their masters. Conversely, a family member here and there will show slivers of humanity (The groom’s drunken brother sighs and muses that perhaps the family deserves death after all they’ve done), albeit to defend the system they benefit from (“My children don’t deserve to die,” a woman replies, tossing a body into a pit). The commentary is just acerbic enough to land amid the flying arrows and satanic chanting, without bogging the plot down with preachy soapboxing.
The best horror comedies lean into the innate absurdities that would arise in a horror setting; it’s the genius that has David Naughton waking up naked in a zoo after a night of lycanthropic havoc in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The writer-director posse work this formula efficiently, exploring the goofy implcations of what would happen if a family of rich jerks suddenly had to employ close-quarters combat tactics. One member excuses himself to the bathroom, where he pulls his phone and looks up a video tutorial on how to operate the crossbow he’s been assigned. These bits acted as a fine counterweight to the macabre slapstick that, at times, felt like a rated-R THREE STOOGES short. The jokes land and the audience squirms, a fine indication that the film’s aim is true.
What truly ties the satire and the gruesome pandemonium together is the atmosphere, a collage of outstanding efforts among the film’s crew. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz does not shy away from candle-lit shadowplay, steeping every sequence in opulent panoramas or intimate gilded-framed portraits. Visceral makeup effects has READY OR NOT walking arm-in-arm with CRAWL as surprisingly brutal summer studio horror fare. Production designer Andrew M. Stearn and set decorator Mike Leandro successfully complete the YOU’RE NEXT-at-GOSFORD PARK aesthetic with ornate set pieces at the family estate, and turn-of-the-century interiors that impose and impress at the same time. While it’s hard to believe that anyone would be comfortable while hunting all night in wedding attire, Avery Plewes’ costumes add further cohesion to the Agatha Christie vibe. Hand-beaded gowns and immaculately fitted suits bring opulence and formality to the whole bloody affair, to say nothing of Grace’s modified wedding dress and practical Chucks, sure to be the 2019 Halloween costume to beat.
READY OR NOT contains plenty of resonance in displaying both the virtues and flaws of opposite layers of the social stratum. It’s a bloody free-for-all in an Agatha Christie set piece. The individual elements have been used before, but Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett craft a crowd-pleasing remix of tropes that achieves what it sets out to do.
Tags: Adam Brody, Agatha Christie, Andie MacDowell, Andrew M. Stearn, Avery Plewes, Brett Jutkiewicz, Brian Tyler, Elyse Levesque, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Guy Busick, Henry Czerny, Horror, James Vanderbilt, John Ralston, Kristian Bruun, Mark O'Brien, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Melanie Scrofano, Mike Leandro, Nat Faxon, Nicky Guadagni, R. Christopher Murphy, Samara Weaving, Satan, Terel Gibson, Tyler Gillett