Ready or Not and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Reviewed
August 27, 2019
eady or Not (2019) gives the in-laws-from-hell horror trope a fresh and playful twist. In the dementedly funny movie, which has been directed by Matt
Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett with a dark bounciness, a year-and-a-half-strong couple is getting married. The love birds are Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien). We know next to nothing about Grace except that she is cheesecake-model beautiful, grew up a foster child, and has a caustic sense of humor. (At one point in the movie she refers to her and Alex’s courtship as a “bone-fest” while smoking a cigarette.) We also know next to nothing about Alex, but his background is entwined with the conceit of the movie, which makes him appear more substantial.
His family, the extravagantly wealthy Le Domases, is hosting his and his lady love’s wedding, which happens on the grounds of the clan’s Gatsby-ish estate as the film opens.
His family has also, for decades, upheld a tradition that, unbeknownst to Grace, will directly involve her. Every time one of the Le Domas children puts a ring on someone’s finger, the new spouse must play a game with the family. The game is chosen at random. Sometimes it’s checkers; sometimes it’s a simple game of cards. The game you don’t want to wind up playing, as Grace finds out, is hide and seek. But hide and seek, to everyone in the family’s horror, is the name printed on the card she gets.
We learn, some time into Ready or Not, that an eon or so ago the Le Domases made a deal with the devil, or something along those lines. That explains all the filthy richness. If the initiating game is not played correctly, everyone in its lineage, supposedly, will die at their quasi-master’s hands. The rules of the other games mentioned in the movie are not known to us. But we learn early on that the rendition of hide and seek to be played is not much like the one that helped us pass the time as kids, and that its counterparts are, in contrast, just as innocent as they sound.
In this version, Grace, who has barely gotten used to the sprawl of the Le Domases gothic, candlelit mansion, is the hider. The seekers are her new family. The goal is to find Grace — and kill her, with some sort of medieval weapon, in keeping with tradition — before sunrise. Poor Grace doesn’t realize that the family is far worse than weird until the family’s baby, the cocaine-sniffing Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), giddily shoots one of the maids in the face, thinking she's the bride.
Ready or Not is not a lot unlike You’re Next (2013), Adam Wingard’s frenetic horror-comedy about a family reunion that turns into an unexpected bloodbath. By the end of that movie, only the girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) of one of the main characters survives, mostly because she’s catlike and talented at avoiding getting killed only by a whisker. But Ready or Not is much more of an intentional, dizzy comedy. Though the premise is pitch black — almost like something you’d read in a horror-anthology book — its thrills are so marinated in rambunctious comedy that even a tragic moment during which Grace thinks she’s escaped but actually hasn’t is played for laughs.
The most influential of horror movies typically take basic social anxieties and wonder what would happen if they were to show them at their most akin to a worst-case scenario. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) turned having a baby into bringing not merely a bad seed but the actual antichrist into the world; The Omen (1976) made parenting the most dangerous and thankless of a task; The Blair Witch Project (1999) imagined both a journalistic investigation and a camping trip turning Warhead-sour.
Ready or Not is concurrently a nightmarish visualization of getting married and meeting the in-laws. The differences between this movie and its more-straightforward peers, though, are that there’s a certain amount of humor maintained by the lead character, and by the jokes stemming from the various inanities of these villains. (Or "fucking rich people!," as Grace bellows at one point.) Grace fears for her life in Ready or Not, but she’s also constantly looking askance in a cheeky way. Of course this would happen to me is one of her stances; she almost presents her disbelief with an eye roll, the sense that she’s pinching herself every few minutes and not because she feels like she’s wandering around in an unusually lucid dream. And the villains, while certainly threatening, are more funny than scary. They’re loons, but they're in the thrall of their looniness. The film, which has been written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, cinematizes the commonly held belief that rich people, truly, are the worst, most infuriatingly brazen bunch in all of humankind. (The family’s black sheep, an Adam Brody-portrayed alcoholic named Daniel, mentions this to Grace more than once.)
Bettinelli-Olphin and Gillett have made a horror movie that unnerves us on a gut level; their assurance in movement and action set pieces taps so directly into our nerves and sinew that we’re enraptured in what’s going on to a physical degree. Grace’s predicament becomes ours. But the abilities of the directors and their charismatic actors also underscore a fault in the writing. While it isn’t hard to be almost immediately engaged with the characters, the screenwriters are maddeningly vague about them. I couldn’t tell you much about any of these people except what “type” they embodied, whether they made me laugh, and whether they played off well against Andie MacDowell, who in playing the Le Domases current matriarch gives an uncharacteristically sinister and thus indelible performance.
I finished Ready or Not aware that while I sympathized with Grace and applauded her at the end of the movie when the police arrive at the mansion, ask her what happened to her, and she responds “in-laws” while lighting a Marlboro, I didn’t really know her. Weaving, who’s great here, made me want to. But I had no sense of Grace’s inner life, what makes this experience so notable, why we should cheer for her. The blurriness of some of the writing prevents Ready or Not from trying on greatness for size, but it’s a smartly made and acted cheap thrill that was pretty soothing to me on the Friday evening I saw it after work.
cary Stories to Tell in the Dark has problems with character too, only its deficiencies are a little harder to watch. While the writers of Ready or Not seemed to have simply forgotten to take the time to say anything
weighty about any one member of its ensemble besides what they meant to the story, Scary tries hard to provide the film with emotional stakes and angsty arcs through which its characters must go to provide some resonance. Its heroine, the bookish Stella (Zoe Colletti), has a mom who abandoned the family recently; her love interest, an out-of-towner named Ramon (Michael Garza), is constantly showered with racial epithets by bigoted locals. (The film is set in a small American city in 1969 — a throwback of a decision it only half-invests in.)
But all of that’s so platitudinously done that we can’t be poked to care about the characters, let alone think of them as anything besides page scribbles. Aggravating the film’s obviousness is the too-competent direction from André Øvredal, whose staging screams that he all-caps knows how to make a good horror movie. But the everywhere-all-the-time automatonic-like efficiency replaces the film’s heart and sense of urgency. It goes through the motions — it’s a scare machine with an assembly-line coldness to it.
We reason it might have worked better if to be structured in the anthology style. Ticket-buyers will recognize the movie’s title as being lifted from the macabre, kid-oriented short-story collections of the same name from the 1980s. I’d have liked to see the film in question resemble a baby Black Sabbath (1963) or Creepshow (1982) — movies comprising a handful of pithy but immediately ingrained-in-us horror stories. That is, after all, how the Scary anthologies functioned, so why not do some modern-day mirroring?
This “adaptation” has instead been provided with a hokey storyline that undermines what drew people to the books to begin with. In the movie, a group of misfits steals a book from a haunted house only to find out that it’s cursed. At odd hours, one of its pages will fly open and a story will appear. The ink, still wet, looks and feels like blood. What happens on the pages happens to the characters in the movie. Usually, a particular happening involves death. The question inevitably fueling the movie is, how do you defeat this book?
I wasn’t particularly keen on finding out, and not in a slantedly enthusiastic way like, say, being too scared to find out. I merely found it difficult to involve myself in an overarching plot so threadbare, with each of its inner semi-vignettes so flatly rendered. The movie’s bright spot is Colletti, whose expressiveness has a giving Cate Blanchett-like quality to it. I suspect the newcomer could go far with the right material. But not with something like Scary, which functions as a dumb, IKEA-furniture-like horror movie constructed by intelligent people.
Ready or Not B+
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark C-
Samara Weaving in 2019's Ready or Not.