Exaggeration is a vital component in any filmmaker’s toolbox. Whether you use it with extreme prejudice, like Martin Scorsese in films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” or with extreme limitations, like Damien Chazelle in “Whiplash.”
Exaggeration can also easily lead to excess, which is how it is mostly used in the realm of horror. “Ready or Not,” a new horror-comedy from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (“Devil’s Due,” “Southbound”) and Tyler Gillett (“Devil’s Due,” “Southbound”) is a lesson in excess, and a whole lot more as well.
Samara Weaving (“SMILF,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is absolutely the film’s highlight. Her role as newlywed bride, Grace, may not be particularly deep, but Weaving dives headfirst into true scream queen territory. She fully embraces the grotesqueness of the events that play out and gives the kind of shriekingly authentic performance that previous actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis and Sarah Michelle Gellar have jump-started careers from.
The rest of the cast is fine, no one here gives an awful performance, but they just don’t have the commitment that Weaving does. Henry Czerny (“The Ice Storm,” “Revenge”), Nicky Guadagni (“Street Legal,” “A Nero Wolfe Mystery”) and Mark O'Brien (“Arrival,” “The Front Runner”) all have a two-dimensional nature that makes them fun to watch scream like props, but are otherwise uncompelling as characters. That’s not even getting into the smaller roles, wherein every character feels like they’re simply walking gag machines.
Andie MacDowell (“sex, lies, and videotape,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and Adam Brody (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Jennifer’s Body”) thankfully bring some level of deeper acting to their roles, but not nearly as excellent as Weaving. They give what could have been one-note meat bags some personality and manage to make them interesting, even if it feels as though everything is thrown out in the last 15 minutes.
Because that is the smaller of the two large issues in “Ready or Not," screenwriters Ryan Murphy (“Minutes Past Midnight”) and Guy Busick (“Urge,” “Stan Against Evil”) have characters flip on a whim simply to further the plot as the film progresses. While there is some semblance of regret, or moral quandary, that exists within these characters, only one of them still feels in character when they suddenly flip sides. The other seems to be against everything that was built up for the previous 70 minutes, making any investment therein feel completely wasted.
Without a doubt, the biggest problem with “Ready or Not” is in its drastic tonal problems. Horror comedies that have defined the genre, like “Scream” or “Shaun of the Dead,” spend time firmly establishing the tone doesn’t break from it. “Shaun of the Dead,” for example, uses humor to get serious plot information across, such as Shaun turning on the outside lights of the bar in the third act and seeing zombies outside. An amusing gag that gets serious plot information across without deviating from the film’s silly tone.
Where “Ready or Not” fails is in its pendulum of tonal shifts. One moment a character will die a serious and graphic death, meant to be accompanied by gasps of shocked audience members, and then a few moments later, the film will play another death as if it was a gag in a Looney Tunes short. This is one example of a lack of consistency, resulting in a film with zero stakes. If a steady tone cannot be established within the world of the film, then anything can happen, and not in a good way, and the audience fails to bother investing themselves.
This also means that the film’s biggest hooks and plot twists don’t work because, again, without a consistent and reliable tone, the audience cannot get invested or even care about the character’s actions, meaning that whether the big twist happens or not, no one really cares.
The film’s craftsmanship is absolutely solid though. This is a gorgeously shot film, with great cinematography from Brett Jutkiewicz (“Them That Follow,” “The Preppie Connection”) expertly framing much of the crazy goings-on. Brian Tyler’s (“Iron Man 3,” “John Dies at the End”) score is equally as impressive, playing under the film’s sinister moments with a string wielding glee. The production design is also excellent, and the house the film is set in is a gorgeous display of woodwork and intricate designs.
At the end of the day, this bizarre concoction of a film is a worthwhile viewing experience for horror fans, based on the production values and Samara Weaving’s performance alone. Otherwise, it’s worth consideration and maybe even a stream or a rental, but in the age of pitch-perfect horror comedies like “This is the End,” “Krampus” and “Get Out,” it’s hard to recommend a theater visit based on good production values and a fantastic lead alone. Overall, it’s just fine, if a bit disappointing; a few cards short of a full deck. 3/5