Out of all the horror films I’ve seen this year, my favorite opening shot came from Ready or Not. It’s the cover art to an old-timey (fictional) board game called “La Bail’s Gamble.” Over its retro Milton-Bradley scenery is a grinning vaudeville fiend, cackling with some horrible expression of certain victory over the players. In this single frame, I understood what this movie would be; a stylized survival story that’s as fun as Clue, and as deadly as Russian Roulette. I might not have been ready for this movie, as the title suggests, but from that first shot until the last, I knew what it was. And I adored it.
“..as fun as Clue, and as deadly as Russian Roulette.”
Grace (Samara Weaving, Mayhem) is about to marry into the wealthy La Domas family, a powerful business empire built on games like La Bail’s Gamble. On the night of her wedding, Grace learns of a strange tradition that the La Domas’s keep every time someone enters the fold: at exactly midnight, they all must play a game. The game selection is made by plucking a card from an antique wooden box. Grace gets what appears to be the most childish card in the lot: Hide and Seek. What she doesn’t know is that she’s randomly picked the most deadly card in the box, one that turns her fiance’s already weird family into a mob of deranged killers. Now, for reasons she can’t understand, Grace will have to stay hidden on the massive La Domas estate until dawn. Or die trying.
Samara Weaving owns the screen as the endangered newlywed and plucky survivor, effortlessly bringing both charm and terror to her role as Grace. Watching her was like solving a case with a detective; she’d handle every new obstacle in a smart, satisfying way using her brains, her grit, and the environment around her. But don’t think that means she doesn’t play the horror angle as well. Weaving is a Queen among Scream Queens, not shying from the trauma a real person in her situation would go through. In her sure-to-be iconic look of torn wedding dress, converse, and a gondolier of bullets across her chest, Grace is certain to make her mark on horror character history, and probably a few costume parties this Halloween.
Now that we’ve covered our player, let’s move on to our board by saying that, if the visuals of this film don’t win some award, there is no justice in the world. Ready or Not was an absolute master of storytelling through imagery. The setting of La Domas Estate is opulent and deadly, as gorgeous as a polar bear rug and as dangerous as how you’d make one. In one particularly memorable early scene, Grace is starting Hide and Seek, still naive to the game she’s really playing. Her long white dress cascades down a winding marble staircase as, behind a door downstairs, the La Domas family adorn themselves with turn-of-the-century hunting weapons. Portraits of big game hunters hang above cruel military swords, interspersed between Grace‘s efforts to fit an entire wedding dress into a dumbwaiter. As an added touch, a creepily-playful ragtime number plays on an old record player under the scene, proving that these filmmakers didn’t sacrifice sound for a masterful image.
Finally, let’s talk about our game masters. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett clearly went to the Hitchcock school of suspense, and graduated with flying colors. They forgo jumpscares and let tense moments linger, allowing the audience’s anxiety to build to white-knuckled terror. The team has a genius-level of insight into the space of the mansion itself, making it feel inviting, alien, even claustrophobic when the scene calls for it. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett make Grace‘s objectives and perils evident even when no one’s explaining it through dialogue, and that allows the audience to lose themselves in the action with her.
Actually, the only stumbles this movie really made were when it did try to explain too much via dialogue. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that there’s a backstory to this murderous game of Hide and Seek. In getting this information out, it occasionally felt like the characters were talking to the audience, not each other. Still, this was a tiny smudge in a magnificent painting, and it hardly took away from the overall experience. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have told a gripping story; whining about how they worded it is hardly worthwhile.
“Ready or Not is teaming with thrills, constantly changing, and never lacking in fun. You’re missing out if you don’t play.”
Ready or Not is proof, along with so many titles this year, that we are living in a golden age of horror movies. It is aware of the things that influenced it, using bits of Agatha Christie and The Most Dangerous Game to deliver a story we can understand and get sucked into. Still, none of those influences diminish its originality. it is uniquely whimsical but also gut-wrenching, there were several times in this movie when I went from screaming to laughing back to screaming in quick succession. I look forward to seeing it again with people who haven’t watched it yet, if nothing else, to see the same reactions come from them. Like a game of Hide and Seek in a big, beautiful house, Ready or Not is teaming with thrills, constantly changing, and never lacking in fun. You’re missing out if you don’t play.
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