Ready or Not (2019)
In-laws can be murder.
Fucking rich people, hey?
That’s the refrain that comes to the lips of our heroine Grace (Australian scream queen Samara Weaving) when she realizes just how sick and twisted the Le Domas family she’s just married into really is. By the time she mutters this curse, she’s badly wounded, relentlessly hunted, covered in blood, her formerly pristine wedding dress ruined from a night of fleeing her Satanist in-laws as they stalk her through their remote country mansion. She thought she was just a working-class gal marrying into money; as it happens, she’s to be a sacrifice to continue the demonic bargain that gave the family their fortune lo these many generations gone by. But hey, what’s a meta for?
That’s pretty much all you need to know about Ready or Not, a delightfully subversive, rather angry, but very funny class-conscious horror romp from co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, V/H/S (2012), and screenwriters Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy. It’s perfectly calibrated stuff: just gory enough to make sure the genre fans don’t feel cheated, light enough that the casuals won’t bolt for the nearest exit, with some decent jump scares and shock moments scattered throughout. The cast all set their performances at just the right degree of histrionic campiness, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time.
There’s a tradition of this sort of thing, and it’s older than you might expect. Aristocratic vampires have been preying on the hoi polloi since the height of Gothic literature (take John Polidori’s The Vampyre from 1816 as the ur-example if you like, but few will blink if you cite Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1897), and the cinematic tradition is at least as widespread as the literary.
Brian Yuzna’s shocker-schlocker Society (1989) might be the most notorious example, following as it does Billy Warlock’s young heir as he discovers his family and friends, rich socialites all, aren’t even human (trudge through the rather rote drama for the stunning final act — trust me). Elsewhere 1987’s Eat the Rich can’t make its point any plainer than its title, while John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) seems more plausible by the year, positing that we’ve been hypnotized en masse by capitalist aliens. Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991) calls out slum lords in an urban horror flick par excellence, while even folk-horror classic The Wicker Man (1973), by Robin Hardy, harbors hidden class issues — remember, Lord Summerisle’s (Christopher Lee) grandfather engineered his people’s paganism as a form of social control.
More recently, Jordan Peele’s Us posits a literal uprising of a hidden underclass, but the suppression of Blumhouse’s The Hunt, which apparently saw wealthy liberals led by Hilary Swank run ‘n’ gun after Betty Gilpin and her fellow ‘deplorables,’ indicates that sometimes this kind of commentary is a little too close to the bone. Ostensibly put on ice in the wake of several mass shootings, its continued absence from the release schedule points to deeper concerns.
Ready or Not defangs its theme a little by having its antagonistic family be stuck in a Faustian pact. Even though, for the most part, they engage with the hunt for Grace with gusto, they don’t really have a choice — failure to sacrifice her to their demonic patron means the whole family will be damned, and though newly-minted hubby Alex (Marc O’Brien) loves his bride and his alcoholic brother Daniel (Adam Brody) is wracked with guilt, somebody has to think of the children (but don’t worry — the kids are little shits who have it coming, too). Besides, everyone’s a tad too blasé about the accidental killing of a trio of housemaids included to bump up the body count a bit, so it’s clear their protests are more about the ickiness of having to butcher their own meat than any ethical concerns about offing the little people.
Everyone involved gives good evil, whether it’s the banality of Kristian Bruun’s nouveau-riche son-in-law and Melanie Scrofano’s drugged-out debutante, or the more urbane menace of Henry Czerny’s patriarch and Andie MacDowell’s society wife (nice bit of metatextual casting there, considering McDowell’s daughters are high society debutantes). Having All the Fun is Canadian actress Nicky Guadagni as sour-faced, bloodthirsty Aunt Helene, who is fully committed to the family and has no qualms about wielding a hefty axe to sever any cumbersome ties. She, at least, is competent; the rest of the family, whose blood is both blue and thin, are pretty inept at murder, which leads to some bleak, black laughs.
But the MVP is Samara Weaving, capitalizing on her already impressive genre resume — The Babysitter (2017), Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-18), Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018) — and giving us a Last Girl for the ages. She’s also, when you think about it, the First Girl, and so her survival is never really in too much doubt — but sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Weaving is simply fearless, game as all hell, throwing herself bodily into whatever any given scene demands of her. Her big eyes and waifish figure work to position her, at least by the signs and symbols of the genre, as a victim, but it isn’t long before Grace, whose hardscrabble backstory is briefly alluded to, is turning the tables on her more effete persecutors and dishing out much-deserved punishment. It’s all deliciously cathartic, and not a million miles away from what fellow Aussie Sharni Vinson did in the much gorier but thematically similar You’re Next back in 2011. I hope we don’t lose her to pure mainstream fare too soon — she’s a total asset to the genre ghetto.
Ready or Not is, to put it simply, an absolute blast: bloody, witty, fast-paced, and with something to say, even if it’s articulating it in the broadest and most slapdash terms possible. It’s just a mean little gem of a horror flick — not a gamechanger by any stretch, but near-perfect Friday night fright fodder.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson