READY OR NOT is a Blood-Soaked Blast

The latest from team Radio Silence makes horror-comedies look devilishly easy

“Dying is easy; Comedy is hard.” — Edmund Gwenn

On their own, horror films and comedies can at least fill seats. They’re easy promises to make to an audience: “You’ll laugh your head off! You’ll be scared out of your mind!” Granted, they’re even easier promises to break, but by the time they are, the audience has already spent their ticket money. But horror-comedies can be brutal. By mixing the two genres, directors must balance life-or-death terror with a potentially atmosphere-killing sense of humor. It’s kill or be killed. Ready or Not, though, is that rare horror blend that makes the whole terrifying ordeal look fiendishly easy, with a taut, hilarious script elevated by a fantastically humble ensemble cast.

Grace’s wedding day is finally here…and she’s petrified. Grace, raised in foster care and eager to join a family of her own, is marrying into Alex’s uncomfortably rich Le Domas family. The family has Grace all but pegged as a gold digger just as eager to plunder the family’s board game fortune — and Grace is determined to prove them wrong by joining in the family’s myriad traditions. The first is one played every wedding night: a random game is selected by the bride as an initiation. Grace, however, picks the ill-fated “Hide-and-Seek” card…a game with all-too-deadly significance to the Le Domases. Grace quickly learns that the family’s version of Hide-and-Seek is a ritualistic hunt — and that if the bride isn’t found and killed by sunrise, the family will meet a long-prophesied demise.

With past credits in the V/H/S series and the self-contained anthology Southbound, production team Radio Silence (including Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) have spent the last few years cutting their teeth on horror-comedy — and their experience pays off in spades Ready or Not. The film’s screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy is a mean, efficient piece of work. It plays into the anxieties of fitting in with a new family as well as the bizarre foibles of the lavishly rich…all while featuring gory demises at the hands of rifles, crossbows, and a menagerie of other ancient weaponry. Even though the film rockets into the premise less than ten minutes in, much of the film is spent in the ranks of the family, which gives both an opportunity to dispense of cleverly-dropped exposition as well as to give unexpected depth to these outlandish, reality-disconnected buffoons. Grace and Alex’s relationship is also fascinating to watch, as both bride and groom struggle with their individual expectations of family while avoiding murderous mayhem. It’s an impressive juggling act of subplots, made all the more so by the film’s tight editing with an eye focused on suspense as much as it is on comedic timing.

As great as the script may be, Ready or Not lives and dies by its cast. Made up of veteran character actors and rising stars alike, Ready or Not’s Le Domas family is a refreshingly ego-free ensemble. Each actor gives each other their time to shine, delighting in the absurdity of their characters while also ensuring they come across as flesh-and-blood people. Most play up their Clue or Breakfast Club-like tropes: there’s the drug-addicted brat (Melanie Scrofano), the status-minded gold digger (Elyse Levesque); the comfortable oaf (Kristian Bruun); the tradition-obsessed elder (Nicky Guadagni). Each of them recognizes the life-or-death stakes at hand, though, and it’s a delightfully manic affair to see them parade the halls of their manor with all sorts of weaponry they clearly have no experience with. Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell are the domineering parents at the family’s core — and both actors are remarkable sounding boards for each other’s calm rationale and exasperated frustration. Adam Brody and Mark O’Brien are unexpectedly moving as the two black sheep of the family, clearly at the end of their patience for the family’s brutal rituals but too afraid of the potential consequences to do anything about it.

But naturally, the film’s standout is Samara Weaving. Grace is naturally reminiscent of revisionist final girls like You’re Next’s Erin or Cabin in the Woods’ Dana, and easily takes her place among them in this decade’s horror lead pantheon. What sets Grace apart, though, is what makes Ready or Not such an engaging watch. Grace doesn’t veer too much into self-awareness to become a rampaging Terminator-like character, nor does she spend the film dwelling in horror movie naivete with a gradual ascension into genre enlightenment. Rather, she reacts to each bloody development with a sincere terror, and reacts accordingly. She runs. She hides. She survives. But Grace never goes off the deep end, especially as she questions the motivations of her new family — her new husband included. Weaving ensures that Grace quickly reckons with the physical and emotional ramifications of each new situation, but never loses sight of her sense of humor or courageousness. It speaks to Ready or Not’s undeniable sincerity — it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also knows that to play too much into laughs means invalidating how seriously the characters take the film’s urgent goings-on.

By the end of Ready or Not, each character feels fleshed out, the rituals feel both insane and logical, and the whole experience feels like a blood-soaked roller coaster ride you can’t wait to get back in line for. It’s a gorgeously-designed one, too, with top-notch production design creating a labyrinthine mansion riddled with Chekhov’s armory (with a special appearance by Chekhov’s dumbwaiter). And dear heavens, it’s so refreshing to finally have a movie this summer that thrills and delights like this without feeling equally obligated to set up some larger universe or sacrifice precious screen time to the latest screen idol’s ego.

That alone makes Ready or Not a film that deserves high praise. It’s icing on the cake that it’s also fun as hell.

Ready or Not hits theaters nationwide August 21, 2019.

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