Ready or Not” (2019) declares its candidacy as one of the best horror films to come from a children’s game – but we’re not talking about the 100th “Ouija”-based film. Instead, we go back further in time to the classic kids’ pastime hide and seek. This is the biggest release from these filmmakers, and it’s enough of a calling card that I’ll keep an eye on their future work.
Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not the “American Horror Story” Ryan Murphy) deliver a suspenseful and darkly comedic riff springing from the idea that “Maybe the rich really are different.” In the Le Domas family, wedding days are capped by a game, honoring the fact that their century-plus of success has come from playing cards, board games and sports.
There’s one card no one (except moviegoers, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie) wants to see drawn, because unlike checkers or chess, a centuries-old pact declares that hide and seek must be played to the death. It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that new bride Grace (Samara Weaving) – who has married Alex (Mark O’Brien) — draws the hide-and-seek card.
(Light spoilers follow.)
Weaving is a fine audience surrogate as she goes through one of those horror-movie wringers such that her pristine white wedding dress gets more than a little grimy by the end; it’s likely not even salvageable. This is also one of those genre films where the ancient house is a character, with dumbwaiters and servants’ passages and massive grounds surrounded by an iron fence. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz shows off the sets in appropriately Gothic fashion.
Alex and his brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), have just enough in way of arcs to create mild intrigue. Everyone else is little more than personalities. The mother (Andie MacDowell) wants to bring the wandering Alex back into the fold. As the practically minded father, Henry Czerny gets to launch into perhaps the best “Game over, man” type of rant since Bill Paxton in “Aliens.” Nicky Guadagni gets to chew some scenery, too, as staunch traditionalist Aunt Helene.
The horror and gore in “Ready or Not” is in that middle ground between silly and serious – enough for some raised eyebrows, not enough for nightmares. Let’s just say Grace will relate more to “Die Hard’s” John McClane after this experience.
Busick and Murphy carefully parse out the mythology. Just about every question I had about motivations and rationale behind the ritual eventually gets answered – although it must be noted that none of the answers are particularly surprising if you watch a lot of horror films.
Balancing humor and horror is always a tricky task, and viewers’ mileage will vary. If you like farcical murder comedies, you’ll be better off with “Clue,” because the laughs here are extremely dark. The callousness of the participants toward certain events over the course of the game makes them unlikeable across the board. While there are good and bad Le Domases relative to the family’s own median level, “Ready or Not” is not ready to entertain the notion of a decent-hearted rich person.
That keeps the film from reaching a next level of greatness, because if there is any social commentary here, it’s extremely broad and shallow. Also, while the film is suspenseful and competently made, it’s rarely surprising. Once you know the premise, you can probably guess which beats will play out.
That said, the overall success of “Ready or Not” is kind of surprising: Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett and company have made an honest-to-god entertaining flick out of hide and seek.