If you count yourself among those who interpret a matrimonial “I do” to mean “happily ever after,” maybe “Ready or Not” isn’t the late-summer date movie for you. On the other hand, for “Crazy Rich Asians” haters and the romantically disinclined, this deranged and darkly comedic thriller — which stuffs the wedding cake full of razor blades, then blows up the chapel — packs subversive pleasures aplenty, exaggerating the anxieties of marrying into an unfamiliar family by confronting its unsuspecting bride with a worst-case set of in-laws.
This deliciously diabolical sophomore feature, which hails from the resourceful low-budget trio known as Radio Silence, represents a departure for indie distributor Fox Searchlight, which has a real winner on its hands — that rare “Get Out”-like horror movie capable of delivering superficial diversion alongside deep cultural critique — but limited experience handling genre fare. To the extent the now-Disney-owned specialty division resembles old-school Miramax, an offering this twisted would have fallen under Dimension’s aegis (the arm that handled films like “Scream”), and its success will depend largely on clever marketing.
A word of warning: Searchlight’s red-band trailer effectively suggests the tone but gives away many of the film’s surprises, so go in blind (and come back to read this review afterward) if you’re sensitive to spoilers.
At its most basic, “Ready or Not” concerns a high-stakes game of Hide and Seek, in which a clan of ultra-rich and extremely unscrupulous bluebloods gang up to find — although “hunt” would be the better word — the newest addition to their old-money dynasty. The Le Domas family has its reasons, which the movie establishes in graphic enough detail when the time comes, although our sympathies lie with outsider Grace (Samara Weaving), who knows as little as we do about her future in-laws going in, other than that they dress like vampires and call a creepy old castle home.
A foster child with no real family of her own, Grace figured she’d hit the jackpot when she met Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), unaware that the eligible bachelor could have such messed-up kin. To his credit, Alex tried his best to escape his relatives, but when Grace asked to get hitched, he had no choice but to observe their macabre conjugal tradition, whereby each new spouse must pass a kind of postnuptial initiation. Seeing as how the Le Domases made their fortune in the field of games, Grace considers it reasonable enough that she should be asked to draw a card.
Opening with the same slick, story-serving showmanship that will drive the rest of their plot, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (“Devil’s Due”) have already hinted at how lethal Hide and Seek can be in the movie’s unsettling prologue. Now, as Grace obliviously searches for some corner of the spooky house where a woman in full wedding dress can plausibly disappear, they start to reveal just how seriously the family takes its sport.
Fully committed patriarch Tony (a demented Henry Czerny) takes it upon himself to arm his four children — although Alex prefers to sit out the stalking of his new bride — bestowing upon each an old-timey weapon, be it crossbow, pocket pistol or big honkin’ battle ax. Although Alex’s mother (Andie MacDowell) and black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody) appear slightly less enthused about killing Grace, most are downright bloodthirsty for the opportunity, none more than Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), a Halloween-ready character who seems to have escaped from Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows.”
It takes Grace a bit of time to figure out the rules, but with the help of her husband — who jeopardizes his own fate by assisting her — and a couple of close calls, she realizes what she’s up against. In someone else’s hands, Grace might have become a natural-born killer, although screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy handicap her somewhat by insisting that she’s nothing like the Le Domas tribe, which means she can fight back but isn’t allowed to sink to their level by actually killing anyone. As dawn approaches, however, the movie gets progressively darker, and soon enough, all bets are off. By the end, everyone — servants, emergency services and even the two kids who’d been safely tucked away in bed — seem to be in on the hunt.
While it’s easy to enjoy this gripping, giallo-gruesome exercise as a kind of Gothic genre-movie pastiche — “What We Do in the Shadows” meets “Rosemary’s Baby,” with a generous helping of “Clue” — the subtext is rich enough to fuel reams of feminist- or film-studies essays. After all, Grace isn’t just dealing with the Le Domases here; she’s up against the entire institution of marriage, and in order to survive her wedding night(mare), she’ll have to tear down the system that put her in this position. As such, each act of self-defense becomes symbolic, chipping away at the foundation of a social construct. By the end, things have gotten so anarchically unhinged, it’s no coincidence that the directors have looked to “Heathers” for inspiration.
Working in the short-film and choose-your-own-adventure formats over the past few years, the Radio Silence gang has gotten plenty of practice subverting audience expectations while developing the skills to pull off such an ambitious thriller for a fraction of what anyone might reasonably think the film cost to make. Bathed in the same grungy, green-tinged funk made popular by the “Saw” movies, “Ready or Not” unnervingly navigates the shadowy corners of its principal location — the sinister Le Domas mansion — resulting in the gut-clenching sense that some lethal threat lurks around nearly every turn.
As the wide-eyed bride, Weaving (“The Babysitter”) bears a striking resemblance to fellow Aussie Margot Robbie, playing a doll-like blonde resourceful enough to earn our respect as she sneaks around in her increasingly blood-soaked wedding dress. The violence here is so over-the-top that it can lapse into comedy, prompting shocked laughter when certain characters are unexpectedly killed, and again when it comes time to dispose of their bodies, none of which can adequately prepare you for the film’s explosively funny finale. For all its irreverence, “Ready or Not” deserves to be taken seriously as satire — toward the rich, the unreliability of “rules” and the very idea of marriage — by taking literally the vows, “Till death do us part.”