Magazine September 30, 2019, Issue

Horror-Comedy Ready or Not Plays on Primal Human Fears

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (Fox Searchlight/Mythology Entertainment)

For all that they bemoan its advance within progressive circles, American conservatives are hardly immune to the lure of contemporary “cancel culture” — the desire to get political enemies fired for unwise tweets, the urge to shut down cultural productions whose messaging offends. But conservatism’s version of cancel culture may be distinct from the Left’s version in one important way. Knowing and caring less about pop culture, the Right is more likely to pick its targets in pure ignorance, and score own goals even when it “wins.”

That’s basically what happened last month with a B-movie called “The Hunt,” with a plot centering around a gang of swells who hunt the luckless poor for sport. Think The Most Dangerous Game and all its imitators — except this time the swells and their targets had a blue-state/red-state vibe, with hunters who resembled Hillary Clinton donors and victims obviously from flyover country.

This gimmick was interpreted in certain precincts of conservative media as Hollywood Liberals Celebrate Hunting Trump Voters for Sport, and soon the outrage had risen all the way to the presidential Twitter feed and the movie’s distributor decided to cancel the release. A great right-wing victory in the culture war, comrade!

Except, um, the southern-accented Americans being hunted for sport in the movie were probably, ah, the heroes? And, ah, the cosmopolitan elites gunning for them were probably, um, the villains? So, er, in fact the conservative censors succeeded in canceling the rare Trump-era movie that was probably . . . on their side?

As a conservative I was deeply embarrassed by this show of culture-war ineptitude. As a critic I was somewhat grateful, however, because it inspired me to go see the other B-movie of the moment featuring a sympathetic blond woman being hunted by the idle rich, which I otherwise might have passed over for the unsuccessful, interminable It: Chapter Two. Whereas now I can advise you to imitate my choices, skip the Stephen King adaptation, and go experience the bonkers pleasures of Ready or Not instead.

Instead of coastal elites hunting deplorables, Ready or Not offers a more apolitical and primal spectacle: The in-laws hunting a new bride on her wedding night. If that sounds ludicrous rather than frightening, then you won’t be surprised to discover that the movie is something of a horror-comedy, mining its premise for black humor at every opportunity. But it’s not a parody; rather, like its meet-the-parents predecessor Get Out, it wants to establish a fundamental sympathy for its beleaguered heroine and maintain a fundamental link to primal human fears.

The heroine, Grace, is played by the Australian actress Samara Weaving (the niece of Hugo Weaving, a.k.a. Elrond and Agent Smith) in what should be a career-accelerating performance, delivered from inside a steadily deteriorating wedding dress. She is marrying into the Le Domas dynasty, a collection of posh weirdos who owe their fortune to a 19th-century ancestor who founded a board-game empire — rather like the Parker Brothers but with a slightly creepier edge — which still sets the tone for the family’s strange traditions.

Chief among these is a wedding-night ritual in which the newest member of the family, bride or groom, must choose a card that dictates which game the family will play that evening. If she chooses “Old Maid,” they just play Old Maid and all is well. But if her card comes up “Hide or Seek,” then the family grabs a bunch of antique weapons and hunts her, inside the walls of the mansion, to the death.

This happens rarely enough that Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), Grace’s seemingly decent, non-homicidal fiancé, thinks that it’s safe to bring her home, marry her on the manse’s front lawn, and then let her play the game. Or maybe he still half-believes in the reason for the tradition — namely, that the family fortune was founded on a Mephistophelian bargain, and that if the Le Domases refuse to hunt when the card requires it, something dire will befall the entire clan.

Either way, in his desire to get married he’s willing to risk one-in-ten odds that his mom or dad or brother (Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny and Adam Brody) will end up killing his beloved with a crossbow or an axe. And which married man among us hasn’t made a version of that bet?

I kid, but like the racial anxieties literalized in the black-bodysnatching plot of Get Out, the marital anxieties literalized in Ready or Not are psychologically potent even amid the self-conscious absurdity of the hunt. (A coked-out sister keeps accidentally gunning down the help; a blimpish brother-in-law googles “pacts with the devil are they real” midway through the hunt.) Like Get Out, too, the story ultimately turns on whether the main character can really trust his or her mate, or whether the pull of family loyalty will always out-tug mere romantic love.

That said, I wish Ready or Not had gone slightly deeper into its own Faustian premise — into soul-horror rather than just body-horror, into the zone where the fear of possession and damnation eclipses the fear of bloody death. In the end the movie tilts a little more than Get Out (which did deal in possession and soul-horror, albeit without an explicitly satanic element) toward splatter and absurdity, a little less toward metaphysical dread. Which makes it less frightening than it could be, for as a wise man said: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 

Good advice for Christians; good advice for horror filmmakers; good advice for aspiring board-game tycoons as well.

This article appears as “Wedding Nightmare” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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