The trope of entitled aristocrats hunting humans has rattled around in pop culture for decades. Beginning with Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” this cautionary tale of wealth spiraling into murderous madness has been remade by Hollywood numerous times, from the Fay Wray–starring 1932 version to the 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller Hard Target. But the recurring theme in all of these films is skill—the notion that the rich people, bored with chasing animals, are seeking an even greater challenge.
Not so in Ready or Not, a new horror comedy from Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. When Fitch (played by Kristian Bruun), a member of the well-heeled Le Domas clan, is handed a weapon and told to hunt someone through the family’s expansive mansion, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, then quickly loads a YouTube video titled “Getting To Know Your Crossbow.” That’s the arch joke at the heart of the film: The target of the hunt, the newlywed Grace (Samara Weaving), might be spared from death not only by her own ingenuity, but also by the incompetence of the people chasing her. Think of Succession, but in the guise of a chintzy, 90-minute horror movie.
The action centers on the night of Grace’s marriage to Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), the eldest scion of a board-game dynasty (sort of a diabolical version of the Parker Brothers). After their vows are sealed, Alex informs Grace of a long-standing tradition, in which the new addition to the family must play a randomly selected game to seal her entrance to the Le Domas way of life. Rather than an innocuous round of croquet or Old Maid, Grace draws hide-and-seek—and the cheerful mood at the manse suddenly turns deadly serious.
Thanks to the creepy bargain their ancestors made to accumulate all that money, the Le Domas family plays hide-and-seek with medieval weapons, and they shoot to kill. But though the patriarch, Tony (Henry Czerny, who’s played great, blue-blooded villains for decades in films such as Clear and Present Danger), hands out the battle-axes and bows and arrows with resigned efficiency, it becomes clear that the family hasn’t had to play hide-and-seek in decades, and the younger generation has never played it at all.
That evens the playing field for Grace. She’s a classic “final girl,” a likable young heroine who’s forced to run a gauntlet of horror set-pieces, but the script (written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy) doesn’t condescend to viewers by turning her into a perfect killing machine. Grace is resourceful and clever, if a little too trusting, and she fights her new in-laws not with hand-to-hand combat but by playing them off one another. Tony; his wife, Becky (Andie MacDowell); and their kids have no doubt they’ll catch their prey eventually—after all, isn’t that how the story has always gone? Grace recognizes that lazy complacency and manipulates it in order to survive.
Ready or Not could’ve easily been a bigger-budgeted, more spectacular-feeling action thriller—a sort of mini–Hunger Games—but the movie’s smaller scale works to its benefit. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, part of the filmmaking group Radio Silence, make their movies with a confident slickness that doesn’t rely on cheap jumps or ultraviolence to get a rise out of the crowd. The film wisely confines the story to one location and fills its roster with character actors and beloved stars on the rebound. MacDowell is a hilariously mercurial matriarch, and Adam Brody adds to his terrific work in Shazam! by giving the role of Alex’s screwup brother a sardonic edge.
The real fun in Ready or Not comes from the ways it subverts its time-tested story, balancing wry commentary and straightforward horror in its portrait of fumbling arrogance and curdled privilege. The message crystallizes nicely as the movie progresses and the family’s violent chase, aimed at Grace, starts affecting their besieged staff instead. The core idea is easy to figure out: “Fucking rich people!” Grace screams near the end, in case viewers didn’t get it. All the best horror should function both as a thrill ride and as a broad, symbolic fable. Ready or Not does exactly that.