“It’s true what they say; the rich really are different.”
It’s going to be extremely hard—bordering on impossible—to write usefully about Ready or Not, a film of extremely modern sensibilities wrapped around a delightfully old-fashioned premise, without getting into the territory of spoilers.
So, if you’d like to see this one as cold as the film’s marketing will allow, know that Ready or Not is a fun, bloody time at the movies, with a star-making turn from Samara Weaving and able assists from a constellation of character actors. Those who are looking for nothing else will find plenty to like here. Then stop reading, because after this, there will be spoilers.
Okay, if you’ve seen the trailer then you already know the premise. Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into the deliriously wealthy Le Domas family, who made their fortune with a board game empire (“we prefer dominion,” her beau tells her) and maybe some more… nefarious bargains.
Unfortunately for her, Grace’s new family has some rather unusual traditions. Namely, when someone new joins the clan, they have to play a game at midnight on the night of the wedding. If they don’t, they believe something very, very bad will happen.
The game is chosen, not at random, but by a mysterious box—we’ll get back to that in a minute—and most of the time it’s innocuous. Chess and Old Maid are two examples. But every now and then someone draws hide and seek, and then things turn ugly.
Even if you haven’t seen the trailer for the movie, which spells the plot out in considerable detail, you already know what’s going to happen when Grace goes and hides, even before the family starts handing out weapons, because you’ve already seen it play out in the film’s cold opening.
What the trailer only hints at, though, is the reason why all this is happening. It isn’t just because rich people are venal and shitty and don’t care about anyone but themselves—although, certainly, there’s a rich vein of that running through the proceedings. In this case, it’s because their ancestor literally made a deal with the devil in order to obtain his wealth and his family’s success—or, at least, they’re pretty sure he did.
Enter that mysterious box and the family’s unseen benefactor—an investor named Mr. Le Bail—who gets an honorary seat at the table that’s always vacant. (Or is it?)
For someone like me, the best moment in Ready or Not comes before the bloodshed begins, when the family patriarch (played by Henry Czerny) is explaining the history of the family, of the mysterious box, and the reason for the game they’re all about to play.
It’s a deal-with-the-devil story so deliciously old-fashioned that it could have come out of any turn-of-the-century collection of ghostly tales. On the car ride home, my friend Jay told me that it was like something I could have written and, honestly, I’m a little bummed that screenwriters Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy beat me to it. (Murphy also wrote Kevin McTurk’s delightful gothic puppet short films The Narrative of Victor Karloch and The Mill at Calder’s End, so his weird tale bonafides are solid.)
Wrapped around that old-fashioned center, however, is a film made up of very modern sensibilities. Directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, working as Radio Silence, had already brought their very modern style to a handful of old-fashioned plots in their segment of V/H/S and the contemporary Rosemary’s Baby-alike Devil’s Due.
Here, they don’t get to play with as much supernatural tomfoolery, but they still use a lot of the same trademarks; shaky handheld cameras, a cynical tone, jokey deaths, and a heavy focus on pain and screaming and close-ups of tear-streaked faces. Things splatter on the camera lens, because of course they do.
This, along with a desire to hold the “is-it-real-or-is-it-not” reveal until the last minute—at one point, a character is Googling “pacts with the devil real or bullshit” on his phone—mean that the film doesn’t get to explore this creaky centerpiece as much as I would like, but it’s nice to have gotten it at all, and complaining really does seem a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
If there’s anything really wrong with Ready or Not—a film that currently has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a review count of just over twenty—it’s that it goes for (dark) comedy much more often (and much more successfully) than it does for terror. I have never found anything as funny as the guy two seats down found everything in this movie.
I’ve seen several reviews arguing that Ready or Not “skewers the 1%,” which I suppose is true enough, in the sense that pretty much all movies about rich Satanists “skewer the 1%.”
If that and Samara Weaving growling, “Fucking rich people,” are enough for you, then your ship has come in. But, ultimately, the sardonic script never really hits the notes of great social satire, and the played-for-laughs deaths of the help undercut that notion more than a little.
The Le Domas family are more bumbling and desperate than sinister. While we’re supposed to cheer when they die, it’s hard, if you think about the actual context of the film’s events longer than the script seems to, not to feel a little sorry for them. After all, they’re ultimately just as trapped in this game as Grace is.
A movie that was more thoughtful might also have been less fun, which is a shame, but it could have done something with that dichotomy. Instead, by the time Ready or Not reaches its bloody denouement, complete with a conflagration fit for a Roger Corman gothic, it ends on a one-liner. That’s a pretty good summation of the film as a whole.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.