Ready? Or not. The simple query that starts a game of hide-and-seek is a question that can turn eminently existential when applied to marriage. In “Ready or Not,” not-so-blushing bride Grace (Samara Weaving) is more than ready to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien). But is she ready to face his stuffy, monied family, the scions of the Le Domas gaming fortune? Set in the world of richies and rituals, this slick slasher flick hinges on a marital game night, a midnight initiation every wannabe Le Domas has to endure. If the newbie pulls the hide-and-seek card, the family hunts them until death or dawn. It’s a blood pact they keep with the ghost of their benefactor, and they wholeheartedly believe it will keep their good fortune intact.
“Ready or Not” is “The Most Dangerous Game” with notes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the sassy, snarky ’tude of “Heathers.” Grace is that film’s Veronica in a wedding dress: a street-smart, sarcastic smoker who has to outwit, outplay and outlast a bunch of privileged buffoons obsessed with status. They’re not croquet mallet-wielding mean girls but rather her in-laws wielding antique pistols and crossbows, and the same whiff of class warfare is undeniable.
But the script, by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, errs too far on the side of sardonic to be taken seriously as true social satire. Horror requires a certain amount of sincerity for the audience to fully buy in, and there’s hardly a trace in this incredibly biting screenplay, which invites the audience to laugh rather than scream. Although it gestures at female empowerment, with Grace as a thoroughly modern Final Girl, and offers a unique spin on “off with their heads” for whiny 1 percenters, the heavy layers of irony both in script and performance never allow the subversive ideas to fully emerge. Chuckling at female servants accidentally shot in the face just doesn’t jive.
However, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett direct the heck out of the script, maintaining the pace at a full rip, which papers over any character inconsistencies or plot holes. The visual style is distinctive and moody, giving way from a sun-bright wedding day to the queasy and claustrophobic atmosphere inside the foreboding mansion. The color is desaturated and full of contrast, cast in an eerie turquoise pall, as if through a murky Instagram filter.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett elicit some memorable performances from the family members, especially Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, who emerges as the supporting breakout star, glowering like no one has ever glowered before. Competing with her for the most quivering coif is Henry Czerny as Grace’s increasingly hysterical father-in-law, while Adam Brody sets the tone with his signature smirkiness as reluctant brother-in-law Daniel.
While the mocking tone mostly undermines any trenchant commentary, the strongest impression “Ready or Not” leaves, thanks to Weaving’s eye-rolling, primal-screaming, evil-giggling performance, is of the cathartic, transformative female rage at the center of it all. The rage is what keeps Grace alive. The sprawling estate itself, a representation of exclusionary greed, rips at her flesh, and though bloodied and battered by this bloodsport, her sheer survival is due to her resistance against the gaping maw of the demented tradition. Ready or not, here she comes.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Playing: In general release