READY OR NOT. Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett. 95 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong horror themes and violence).
‘Ready or Not’ is a regularly amusing and impressively atmospheric thriller. Its terrific cast, led by Australian star-on-the-rise Samara Weaving, sink their teeth into a collection of juicy roles, their commitment to the film’s mad premise rooting it firmly in the darkest end of the black comedy spectrum. Though its low-budget plotting occasionally gets a little flat and predictable, its pulpy “wealthy evildoers get their just desserts” narrative should prove a satisfying ride for genre audiences.
On the night of her wedding to Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, decent), one of the heirs to the Le Domas family fortune, Grace (Samara Weaving) learns about a bizarre family ritual. As patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) tells it, ever since his great-grandfather made a pact with a mysterious stranger called Mr Le Bail, the family has been blessed with incredible prosperity, their games and entertainment empire going from strength to strength. To keep their end of the bargain, outsiders marrying into the Le Domas family must pluck a card from a mysterious box and partake in whatever game is printed on the card. Grace draws “Hide and Seek”, a seemingly harmless selection. However, as a prologue set 30 years prior makes clear, in which Alex’s aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni, laying it on thick) and the Le Domas family hunt down and kill Helene’s erstwhile husband, Grace is in for a nasty surprise. Soon realising her plight, Grace goes on the run inside their sprawling family mansion while her in-laws take up arms and count to 100…
Screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy do their part to maximise the mileage that the film gets from its $6m budget, having loyal manservant Stevens (John Ralston) lock the mansion down to keep the cat-and-mouse action in one location (even when you hope that Grace might just escape and expand the world of the movie, she fails). But what a location it is! The opulent yet oppressive Le Domas estate clearly sets the film’s arch tone, its heavily stylised look giving the script’s mad “pact with the devil” storyline a suitably gothic playground in which to unspool. Between Andrew M. Stearn’s production design and Mike Leandro’s set dressing, their Toronto shooting locations look every inch the film’s affluent Massachusetts setting, totally penning Grace in on all sides during her plunge into the family’s twisted game. The plot is not entirely new, its set pieces and story developments recalling numerous recent “protagonist being hunted” films like ‘You’re Next’ and ‘The Babysitter’, but it does a solid enough job of differentiating itself with unique markers like its wedding night setting and the boardgame dynasty-slash-cult at its centre.
While Busick and Murphy could also be credited with establishing the movie’s strong tonal blend between laughs and thrills with their pithy dialogue, it’s the cast that really walks this tricky balancing act. Despite leading her third horror-comedy in as many years (after 2017’s ‘The Babysitter’ and ‘Mayhem’) Samara Weaving shows no signs of slowing down, throwing herself through the required emotional and physical turmoil with abandon. As Grace goes from unwitting patsy to avenging angel, Weaving’s Grace maintains a pleasing and true-to-life incredulity about her predicament. Though the script hints at an interesting backstory for Grace that never receives its due, her character always feels like a real person going through an unreal series of events. Adam Brody, the “name” cast member for the key younger demographic, is also great as Grace’s alcoholic brother-in-law Daniel, whose weary, exasperated tolerance of his strange family allows for some sympathy with the antagonists. However, it’s veterans Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell that steal the show as Grace’s new in-laws, playing their eminently villainous characters without a hint of self-consciousness, lending their deranged actions a comical absurdity that earns many of the film’s laughs.
This is the second feature from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who with executive producer Chad Villella form the creative team known as Radio Silence. Though ‘Ready or Not’ doesn’t break new narrative ground, Radio Silence display a real knack for managing tone and atmosphere, an aptitude you hope that they will next bring to bear upon a project outside the low-budget horror genre. Whatever it is, I suspect that theatregoers would be more than ready for it.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 24.
Fox Searchlight Pictures.