(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a movie whose classic film influences were so prominent and varied (the last one would probably be A Simple Favor). That’s not to say there haven’t been other columns in this category that homage specific features, but Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not seems to be directly speaking to a world of filmmaking that is obvious and multilayered. So let’s dive into just a few of the classic film homages you can find within Ready or Not.
The Plot: Grace (Samara Weaving) has just married into the Le Dolmas family who have made their name (and, more importantly, their wealth) in board games. On her wedding night Grace is told it’s a family tradition for the newest member to play a game. She’s tasked with playing Hide and Seek, but instead of a happy children’s game Grace must fight for her life as her new in-laws and relatives hunt her down.
And from here on out, we’ll be talking spoilers.
Can I Give You a Clue?
Upon seeing Ready or Not’s first trailer the reaction on social media was that the film seemed reminiscent of Clue, the wacky adaptation of the popular board game wherein a group of blackmailed strangers come together to solve a murder. The movie was notable both for its impressive cast and fun blending of horror and humor. It’s obvious to see the comparisons between it and Ready for Not.
Though the latter doesn’t have the names of established stars like Tim Curry or Leslie Ann Warren, it borrows liberally from that film’s employment of talented actors to play zany, at times frightening people. Michael McKean’s neurotic Mr. Green in Clue is a close cousin to the manic, coked-out character of Emily (Melanie Scrofano). Elyse Levesque’s Charity, the elegant wife of the drunken Daniel (Adam Brody), is akin to Madeline Kahn’s Mrs. Wife, both characters fed up with men and an inch away from losing their classy cool. What Ready or Not does differently by not having A-list stars is give a foundation for the cast to establish new personas. Andie McDowall eschews her naivete to play a haughty though sensitive socialite, while the usually comedic Brody plays a broken weakling.
But even Clue wasn’t created in a vacuum. Clue itself paid tribute to ensemble features of the ‘30s and ‘40s which took a studio’s established players and gave them a chance to play off each other, usually in a highly tense situation. The group of survivors in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat have to deal with being in a…..well, lifeboat and contained a cast that includes the infamous Tallulah Bankhead. The 1939 jungle survival feature Five Came Back sees Chester Morris and Lucille Ball try to get on the last flight home. Even the disaster features of the ‘70s, like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno saw groups of well-regarded performers backbiting, living and dying opposite each other.
The Woman in the Dark
But more than the Clue comparisons Ready or Not hearkens back to the era of ‘40s thrillers involving women in the dark. A majority of these movies, usually aimed at women, featured them as the leading ladies to an unfolding story where they don’t have all the information. Paranoia and fear lead their lives because key events, either from the past or present, aren’t given to them.
Grace in Ready or Not is simply told by her new husband, Alex (Mark O’Brien) that she needs to play a game. He never tells her why or what her fate is if she picks the hide and seek card. He intentionally hides information yet simultaneously chastises his family for what they’re doing. As his mother tells him, if he didn’t believe anything bad would happen he’d have never brought Grace to play at all.
Grace’s parallels as a woman in the dark is reminiscent of three key characters in classic film history: Gene Tierney’s Laura from the 1944 noir of the same name, Joan Fontaine’s Lina Aysgarth in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 mystery Suspicion, and Ingrid Bergman’s Paula in Gaslight (1944). Where Tierney’s Laura is presented as a dream woman through the eyes of the people who know her (and believe her to be dead), Lina is a scared, timid heiress whose new husband Johnny (Cary Grant) is believed to be a murderer, hoping to kill his new wife for her money. The same plot also permeates Gaslight, with Charles Boyer being the husband hoping to drive his wife insane.
Unlike her compatriots though Grace is only in the dark because of what Alex keeps from her. She doesn’t necessarily have blinders on, in comparison to Lina or Paula, though she does hope that Alex truly loves her. Nor is she necessarily presented as growing paranoid throughout her ordeal. In comparison to all three classic heroines, Grace takes charge and is willing to rock a rifle to secure her own survival. She isn’t afraid of the world but is in fact aware of its horrors. When she screams at a car about rich people, it’s an acknowledgment of the economic disparity we’re all aware from. Grace doesn’t run deeper into the dark, but towards the light. Where Laura, Lina, and Paula are aided by male compatriots towards a grand revelation, Grace finds it all on her own.
Let’s Go Gothic (Horror)
The woman in the dark trope comes through the most in Gothic horror of the 1940s. Grace, clad in her Victorian-esque wedding dress immediately reminds audiences of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel The Woman in White, itself adapted into a Gothic mystery in 1948 with Alexis Smith playing the titular character. The Le Dolmas’ house with its servants corridors, dark corners, and antiques looks like something out of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, or a Gothic mansion of the late 1800s. Grace finds something new and terrifying around every corner, heightening the tension and showing the sheer history of the Le Dolmas’ family’s secrets.
The Le Dolmas’ secrets are almost similar to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (adapted into a feature with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in 1943). Though there’s no secret wife in the attic, Grace comes to learn that brides and grooms are regularly killed, their bodies disposed and left to rot in an old goat pit in the family barn. And like with Gaslight, about a husband lying to his wife, there’s a fair amount of 1940’s Rebecca present. Alex, like Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, hides pieces of his history for Grace to discover with dangerous results.
Interestingly, both the woman in the dark trope and the Gothic melodrama both posit that relationships are ugly, terrifying, and ultimately failures (Suspicion, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca may end with the couples together but they will never be fully the same). Love becomes flawed and mistrust is always evident.
By the end of Ready or Not, Grace discovers that relationships will always have an air of self-interest; that the true sacrifice of giving yourself over to save someone else might be a fantasy. Grace leaves the narrative wiser and independent, where her inspirations maintained the status quo. It’s a fantastic way of showing progression in inspiration, that we can still love the past and change how it’s applied to the future.
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