There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 movie adaptation of Richard Connell’s short story of the same name. Joel McCrea plays Bob Rainsford, a big-game hunter who gets shipwrecked on a private South American island belonging to a fellow sportsman, the Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). When Rainsford meets Zaroff’s guests, he becomes smitten with another castaway, an elegant young woman named Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray), who warns the new arrival that ever since she washed ashore, she’s seen multiple occupants of the Count’s lavish estate disappear into the surrounding jungle, never to return. Bob soon finds out why, during a conversation about hunting with their host, who confesses that he rediscovered his passion for the chase once he started going after human prey.
Why watch now?
Because Ready or Not opens in theaters this weekend.
Co-directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy), Ready or Not is a satirical horror-comedy about a young bride who participates in her mega-rich in-laws’ traditional game of hide-and-seek, only to discover that when they find her, they mean to kill her. The newlywed (played by Samara Weaving) fights back, using her wits and this excessively privileged family’s vast, winding house to try to survive until the game ends at dawn.
Ready or Not has been greeted with mostly positive early reviews, and — curiously — none of the outrage that recently prompted Universal Pictures to shelve its planned September release of the similarly themed The Hunt. Both of those movies are about “elites” hunting humans for sport. But The Hunt (which hadn’t been screened for the media before it was yanked) drew the ire of right-wing pundits due to its fairly gritty trailer, which shows rich folks going after working-class middle Americans, with little indication of the film’s larger point or perspective. Ready or Not, on the other hand, has been marketed more like an Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, with cartoonish aristocrats romping around an old-timey mansion filled with secret passages and loyal servants.
The context for these stories matters, because there’s nothing new about the “human hunting humans” plot. The first big-screen version of The Most Dangerous Game popularized the premise, which has been repeated countless times across the decades, both in direct adaptations of Connell’s story (like 1945’s A Game of Death and 1956’s Run for the Sun) and indirect (like Hong Kong action director John Woo’s first Hollywood movie, 1993’s Hard Target, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme). And the best of these films try to say something meaningful about society, between all the scenes of running, hiding, shooting, and impaling.
That’s certainly true of the 1932 Most Dangerous Game, which emphasizes the similarities between its hero and its villain. Early on, Bob Rainsford boasts about how hunting wild animals is a natural expression of humankind’s superiority. But when Count Zaroff says much the same, and describes the ultimate thrill of stalking and killing people, Rainsford finds the idea repellant. He chooses to be the prey rather than hunt alongside his host, and what follows is an exciting round of what Zaroff describes as “outdoor chess… his brain against mine.”
Who it’s for
Devotees of classic American short stories and matte paintings.
Connell’s story has been a staple of literature classes for nearly a hundred years, for two simple reasons: it’s gripping, and it sparks lively discussions. The movie version was co-directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and co-produced by Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, working with a team that would immediately go on to make King Kong on some of the same sets. The filmmakers don’t overcomplicate the material, beyond adding Eve to the story as Rainsford’s love interest. The Most Dangerous Game runs just over an hour, a little over half of which consists of civilized men and women sitting in lavishly appointed rooms talking about human nature, followed by a nail-biting chase through the jungle. The movie sets up the themes, then delivers a long, uninterrupted stretch of intense action.
The production team creates the illusion of Count Zaroff’s island — with its cavernous manor house and dramatic oceanside cliffs and crevasses — with all the expressionistic cinematic techniques available to filmmakers in the early 1930s. In the film’s second half, when Bob and Eve are ducking through thick vegetation and setting clever traps for their pursuer, the combination of the expensive jungle sets and state-of-the-art practical effects — including fog machines, rear-projection, subjective camera work, and gorgeously elaborate matte paintings — gives The Most Dangerous Game a dreamlike quality.
Where to see it
The Most Dangerous Game has been in the public domain since 1960, so there are multiple ways to stream it legally. Amazon Prime subscribers can watch a colorized version, which looks surprisingly lovely — a little like a tinted postcard. For those who would understandably prefer the original black and white, the best option is the Criterion Channel. It’s also available on YouTube, in various free and fuzzy transfers that don’t do it justice.