Maybe it’s just a matter of timing that horror films feel so potent these days.
At a moment when so much seems beyond control — when even the politically disengaged have spoken of the Trump era as a scary, dystopian time — clever uses of horror can actually be therapeutic. They’re like tiny valves that allow steam to escape on screen while a variety of pressures simmer in the real world.
“Ready or Not,” Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s new horror comedy, joins a growing bloc in that horror-with-political-messaging genre — specifically about greed and parasitic 1 percenters.
“I think one of the reasons why we’re seeing this theme specifically continue to pop up in recent genre movies is that there’s a lot at work right now culturally. … There are a lot of people that just want to f***ing scream right now. There’s a lot of rage, and a lot of anger, and a lot of fear,” Gillett recently told Vanity Fair.
The movie’s premise is fairly simple if absurd (and telling): A new wife joins a board-game-dynasty family that’s “richer than God.” But, per family tradition, she has to play a game to join the blue-blooded brood — hers is hide-and-seek. The rest of the movie follows her as she attempts to evade the wealthy clan as its members — armed with bows and arrows and axes — turn their sprawling mansion into a hunting ground.
While the message of “Ready or Not” isn’t new, it is timely.
Recent polling backs up one of 2016’s loud messages: Americans think that those in power don’t care about them. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 70% of Americans are angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power.” This fits with “Ready or Not,” which uses satire, allegory, and heaps of gore to rebuke capricious ruling elites who will do anything to hold onto their power.
That places “Ready or Not” in an emerging genre of horror films that also subvert prevailing notions of class and status.
Take “Us,” Jordan Peele’s movie from earlier this year that warns against the caustic fear many people have of “the Other.” (Notably, Peele has mentioned that he hopes that this message won’t be lost on President Donald Trump, should he ever see “Us.”)
But “Us” digs deeper than that. It’s a film about the warping comforts of wealth, the trappings of which obscure the extreme inequality all around the members of the Wilson family and their friends, as depicted through the Tethered, who live in meandering underground tunnels, feed on raw rabbits, and literally have no voice.
To watch “Ready or Not” or “Us” is, in some ways, to see thematic parallels with other colossally excellent horror or horror-adjacent movies, including Peele’s 2017 movie “Get Out,” which takes aim at white limousine liberals, and South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 thriller “Parasite,” which offers a chilling and at times devastating portrait of class conflict.
Horror films provide a vehicle through which to express the rip-roaring blend of emotions Gillett mentioned, as these tales act as a permission to address frustratingly rigid realities, such as the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.
Part of storytelling’s power is that you have a captive audience, Peele told the New York Times in 2017, after the release of “Get Out.” You can smuggle themes into screams.
In 2019, this mode of screaming seems all the more necessary.
Earlier this month, seemingly spurred in part by Trump’s Twitter tirade about a movie he believed wouldn’t share his politics, Universal Pictures shelved (at least temporarily) “The Hunt,” an adaptation of the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” The recent crop of stick-it-to-the-rich horror movies, then, comes with a sort of promise: Though they don’t offer actual solutions, they do provide opportunities to find collective comfort in truly bewildering, chaotic times.