Sometimes you watch a trailer so bonkers that you go into the movie expecting it to be so awesomely bad that it’s kind of enjoyable. Then, as you sit and watch the movie itself, you realize that you actually underestimated the filmmakers.
That’s the case with “Ready or Not,” a delicious new horror flick where if you can buy into the absurd hide-and-seek premise, you’ll find it to be a consistently intense, comedically campy and ultimately surprising addition to the genre.
The story follows a tough but naive bride named Grace (Samara Weaving), who marries into old money. Per tradition, wedding night becomes family game night with her eccentric new in-laws, who give her a mysterious wooden box built by their great grandfather to determine which game they’ll play. The Russian roulette does not work in her favor; rather than a board game, she draws a diabolical game of hide-and-seek where the family must find and kill her by dawn.
You’ll recognize the Australian star (Hugo Weaving’s niece) as the ditsy girlfriend Penelope from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). In “Ready or Not,” she shakes free of Margot Robbie comparisons into a must-cast actress in her own right, believably evolving through different emotions. She sympathetically goes along to get along at first, before her wide-eyed realization of terror, then grows into a bloody bride fighting back like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” (2003).
Surrounding her is a cast of in-laws with varying degrees of interest in the game. Henry Czerny is the amused patriarch laying out the rules; Andie MacDowell is the supportive matriarch who sees herself in Grace; Nicky Guadagni is the bloodthirsty, ax-wielding aunt; Elyse Levesque is the clumsy, coked-out novice; Kristian Bruun is the superstitious uncle; Melanie Melanie Scrofano is the eager-to-please sister; Adam Brody is the alcoholic brother-in-law who has a crush on her; and Mark O’Brien is the asinine husband who got her involved in this mess.
The quirky cast might draw comparisons to Chris Evans’ “Knives Out” (2019) or Ryan Reynolds’ remake of “Clue” (1985), but this isn’t a whodunit; this is a who’s gonna do it? However, the film does delight in a similar parlor-style atmosphere. Shot in a Gothic Revival home in Ontario, Canada, production designer Andrew Stearn and set decorator Mike Leandro present wooden interiors, moody candelabras, menacing fireplaces and giant oil portraits of ancestors watching.
Helming it all are Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who previously filmed spooky segments in “V/H/S” (2012). Co-directed films are often tricky to establish a singular vision, but the duo impressively uses the hallways, beds, tables, countertops, dumb waiters and secret passageways as suspenseful devices. Several scenes recall monster-in-the-house classics, from Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963) to Steven Spielberg’s raptor kitchen in “Jurassic Park” (1993).
Still, most of the credit belongs to co-writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, who continually find ways to expand the claustrophobic material, using the exterior grounds, fences, vehicles and stables. They also find ways to weave in dark humor in a way that feels consistent with this campy universe, as well as an underlying social commentary on class warfare between the privileged rich getting away with murder and the humble poor scratching and clawing to survive.
Most rewarding, the film sticks the landing with a genuinely surprising finale. By the closing image of Grace covered in blood, you’ll think of past horror queens from “Carrie” (1976) to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). Time will tell whether “Ready or Not” will be a horror classic like those, but for now, it’s a must-see entry in the genre for anyone who considers themselves horror fans. If last year entered “A Quiet Place” into the canon, 2019 just gave us “Ready or Not.”