For those who had ever considered their family to be painfully dysfunctional, you may be in for a wakeup call. The upscale, affluent clan in Ready or Not, summer’s last real horror surprise, could likely have anyone else’s beat. And for naive newlywed Grace (Samara Weaving), this is not an effective lesson on how to really belong in one, particularly one where the idea to kill in order to protect valuable assets is effectively lampooned. That’s the farthest thing from her trajectory upon marrying the heir to a board game dynasty, the chivalrous Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), whom she loves endearingly, and with a graceful confidence most husbands-to-be would normally envy. And that is only the beginning; it gets far more twisted, the coil only picking up disturbing shape until the very last frame.
The directing duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (V/H/S, Devil’s Due) are clear veterans of shaking the standard horror movie formula. They will not settle for simple jump scares and hokey bloodshed. Here, it’s with a bitter satirical edge, to poke light at where the 1% would bare their teeth rather than show compassion. And for Grace, marrying into such finer things would be a fine contrast from her former life, a foster kid working her way through the system. But even the wedding night poses its challenges.
The Le Demos family are nothing if not wonderfully adherent to tradition. The wedding was meant to take place in their old-fashioned Victorian-style mansion, which likely could confuse viewers on the time period setting. Trust me, it’s as modern as possible, but not so much inside the house. And family patriarch Tony (a fantastically sailor-mouthed Henry Czerny), owner of the games business, always insists on a fanciful game to break the ice in… lighthearted ritual form. Grace deals the hand, but ultimately picks what Alex would potentially consider a bad card. A game of hide-and-seek, which seems simple enough; Grace hides somewhere, and the family can spend up to the entire evening seeking. But when a haunting song played on old gramophones blasts the mansion’s pa system and all the residents start brandishing handguns, axes, even crossbows, chances are it is a completely different game altogether.
The Le Domas Dynasty, as they’ll casually flaunt about, are just that. And it’s to the point that if they want to maintain their wealth, they must perform a ritual blood sacrifice by dawn, with Grace as the intended victim. Of course, Alex was never one to support this tradition; it had only happened one other time in their family 30 years prior. So, the duo makes every attempt to merely escape the compound, preferably before time runs out.
From there, the film moves very quickly, and with gags aplenty, mixing Carrie-esque bloodshed, with the laugh-a-minute whodunnit style of, say Clue, or Murder by Death. Never in my mind would I have anticipated such a decadent mix of comedy and straight-up horror. That alone was the big shock, something that writers Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy can wear with a badge of honor. Their satirical edge sharp as a bludgeon, their aim to look past what the dynasty would consider unbreakable tradition very precise. And their insistence on making one weird house resident keen on classical music, lending to one of the aesthetically pleasing moments at the midway point, well warranted.
The entire supporting cast manage to offer their own surprise factor here and there, notably Adam Brody as Alex’s rowdy former-fratboy brother Daniel. An understated delight, naturally poised with a drink glass in one hand, shotgun in the other, altogether conflicted (and underdeveloped) on just where his morals lie. Kristian Brunn (Orphan Black) scores big as burly Fitch, a self-doubting house manager. There’s the cocky, bitchy, if not a trifle senile Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagne), lighting a fire up everyone else’s butts to finish the job like it were a mob-sanctioned event. Czerny, still the soapy old dad from Revenge in my eyes, he’s consistently delightful here, particularly with Andie McDowell as his wife, even though she was never given enough time for her character to develop fully. The same could easily be said for Fitch, and John Ralston’s Stevens (the conductor guy).
Aside from Brett Jutkiewicz’s (Them That Follow) spotless cinematographical choices, and the award-worthy costume work of Avery Plewes (Everything, Everything), it’s Miss Weaving who is the true star of the show. From her cunning nature down to that shrill, painfully grating scream of hers destined to live on in horror movie lore, she is a pure triumph whose breakout moment has deservedly arrived. Best recognized by American audiences for her roles in Three Billboards and the Showtime drama SMILF, the Aussie-born actress (and Hugo’s niece) has found her voice, her gutsiness to take on a lead role this risky, to be rewarded with a big highpoint. Equal parts charismatic, charming and cocky, she’s nothing of a damsel. Consider her the bootstrapped heroine putting matters into her own hands. Even when thrust into a dangerous situation or taking painful hit after hit, she finds the best way to make it look exciting, refreshing.
As the last shot played out on Ready or Not, I felt myself gasping for air a little, like I was knocked out at the end of a 12-round bout. The impression it left on me and my stunned face will likely tell you everything about my view toward it. Weaving’s got the chops, and Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin have masterfully created a magnum opus sure to please genre fans. I have no doubt it will be an instant crowd-pleaser the same way Clue likely was in the 80s. A comic horror mystery that’s not afraid to get down and dirty; it does help this one’s proud of its heavy R rating, with stabbings, f-words, and unfiltered societal ribbing aplenty. Ready or Not is easily the best horror film of the year so far, and perhaps the best cinematic surprise of the summer. Of course, it all had to happen at the very end of the season, where many are taking a short break from the theater. But for those who do stick around, this will be an overnight stay worth the booking fee. (A-)
Ready or Not is in area theaters now; rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout and some drug use; 95 minutes.