REVIEW / HORROR-COMEDY
READY OR NOT (M18)
96 minutes / Opens today / 4 Stars
The story: In a flashback scene, a terrified man is chased through a mansion before he is shot full of arrows by men and women in masks and formal dress. In the present day, Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O'Brien) are getting married in the home of his wealthy but eccentric family, who insist that the bride must take part in a midnight ritual of picking a game in which the entire clan can participate.
This survival-game movie's calling card is not gimmicky improvised weapons or sudden nerd-to-hero character transitions.
The winning ingredient is tone. It walks the line between cartoonish mayhem and serious stakes with easy grace, with the goal of telling a story about what the 1 per cent really think of the poor.
Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have absorbed the jokey gore style of Drag Me To Hell (2009) and The Evil Dead (1981) helmer Sam Raimi.
In classic Raimi fashion, most of the gruesome deaths here are played for laughs. And some are spectacularly gory, in much the same way that Tom the cat in a Tom and Jerry cartoon gets his comeuppance.
But the directors know how to dial back the humour - no one is crushed under an anvil or falls into a cement mixer, for example - because, otherwise, the result would be a low-stakes murder-fest in which nothing, not even the protagonist's survival, matters.
Instead, there is a focus on character detail, with the careful doling out of backstory and exposition over the course of the movie, instead of loading it all in the first act, as is the standard practice, thus leaving the next two available for a bloody free-for-all.
Keeping cliches out of the story extends to how, despite the temptation to turn Grace into a Rambo-ette in the final act, she remains largely who she is at the start of the story. Weaving's winning performance as the chatty but level-headed bride who learns that she is marrying into a murderous version of the Addams family is a major plus.
There is not a weak point in the supporting cast. Canadian character actor Henry Czerny is outstanding as the urbane but deliciously evil patriarch, who sighs with irritation at the inconvenience of recruiting and training when he spots yet another member of his staff splattered across the carpet.
Survival-game movies do not have to be this good - it is easier and more bankable to rely solely on gore, sentimentality or game mechanics - so to find one as fun and layered as this gives one renewed hope for the genre.