'Scare Me' plays like a 'Middleditch and Schwartz' Halloween special, and I mean that with the utmost complimentary intentions.
- 🔦 Phenomenal performances.
- 🔦 Ingenious horror delivery.
- 🔦 Ambitious, with payoff.
- 🔦 Could be too "meta" for some.
- 🔦 Wordy horror.
No, Scare Me will not scare you (by mainstream definitions). Yes, Scare Me will positively delight audiences through exemplary on-the-spot campfire tales and improvisational hallmarks. As writer and director, Josh Ruben’s mindset approaches narrative intrigue from the most fundamental perspective of commanding an audience using only your vocabulary, charisma, and nitty-gritty details. A “cabin in the woods” horror story about telling horror stories, while the insecurities and jealousies of two creators bring their imaginative ammunition about ventilation trolls, werewolves, and zombie outbreaks to life. It might sound odd, but Ruben’s exercise in creative spitballing bursts with character(s), palpable suspense, and scary stories more than worth telling in the dark.
Fred (Josh Ruben), an aspiring writer/director/actor, flees to the Catskills for an isolated cabin retreat with the mission of penning his epic werewolf action saga. While out jogging one morning, he encounters Fanny (Aya Cash), the Fanny who authored Venus, heralded by critics as one of the greatest horror novels of all time. The two separate to map their newest projects in solitude until power grids go black, and Fanny shows up on Fred’s doorstep. She’s bored, and he’s a ‘fraidy cat, so she proposes an idea: they stay awake all night, defeating doldrums with spooky original stories. Fred agrees, fueled by the unspoken motivation of proving himself to the best-selling author. Hell, even their pizza delivery guy, Carlo (Chris Redd), participates.
If anything, Scare Me is a statement-maker. Ruben doesn’t require gallons of fake blood, hordes of CGI’ed monsters, or even one possessive apparition. Scare Me crystalizes what most successful indie filmmakers already know: all one needs is a killer story. When you strip away practical effects and animated coverups, what's left? Words on a page that will display their standalone worth when read aloud, sans blockbuster distractions. It’s a gamble, given how viewer attention spans burn quicker than cotton these days, but the devil is in Ruben’s theatrical details. Each story coming alive as characters vocalize unique accents, while smaller, workable visual aids (shadow puppets, costume gloves, etc.) kickstart what our mind’s projection finishes.
Josh Ruben and Aya Cash are ghastly gabbing dynamos in their one-man, one-woman Tales From The Crypt inspirations (both nailing John Kassir impressions), as Scare Me becomes an out-of-the-box horror anthology. Scenes run entirely on both actors’ energies, which are more potent than a sinister supernova. Ruben’s acting-out of his werewolf film’s opening, where a small boy watches the savage beast slaughter his parents, utilizes shadowy cottage staircases and hallways as Fred becomes boy, Lycan, and victims. Cash’s sarcastic, biting wit favors the more competent wordsmith and scene-setter. Fanny’s attention to meticulous details describes even the tiniest atmospheric morsel (we drool over), as she concocts a revenge story about some Slavic grandfather who enacts revenge on behalf of his mistakenly poisoned pooch.
“Two actors, trying to out-storytell one another, portraying characters driven by ego and self-doubt and imposter syndrome. How entertaining could that be?” My answer: very!
As their competition ramps and Carlo enters the picture (Chris Redd injects even more zip), inebriation via alcohol and cocaine loosen whatever inhibitions might still be bound by psychological chains. Cinematographer Brendan H. Banks responds to Fred and Fanny’s meta-directive cues, even though an undead Shitzu isn’t limping towards Fanny in-focus. Still, the camera holds, and sound design overlays a whimpering pup over empty space. Or zooms on a menacing Fanny, posing atop Fred as he slouches in his antique chair, his newfound friend imitating the ghoulish canine she’s summoned through growls and slobbers and behavioral abandon. We’re tricked into seeing Fanny as this wretched creature, or Fred as some Gollum-esque gremlin, not only thanks to enthralling physical commitment but through filmmaking aspects that reflect the tales being told, in the cleverest of manifestations.
The more characters become lost within their fantasies, the more the camera stages perfectly framed shots. Fred, bounding towards a yelping homemaker as his werewolf. Fred and Fanny making “shush” faces, pointer fingers over lips, into the camera with The Shining sisters’ creepiness (above). Even blacking out the backdrop behind Fanny, warm house lights blasting on her starstruck figure as she performs for a fake reality singing competition while under the devil’s curse. Cue Fred and Carlo synchronizing choreography as backup dancers, while Scare Me morphs into a musical thriller drenched in satanic red hues. Minimalism never a curse, only a blessing. Cash and Ruben and Redd evoke the proverbial storytelling magic we hear about so often as their emphatic impressions conjure captivation at the highest stage-production peaks.
Even better, Scare Me feels introspectively personal. The stakes aren’t just screenwriters and novelists fighting blockages. As Fred monologues about the 38-year-old marketing analyst still dying to achieve his dream, this stinging sensation sharpens Ruben’s words. Fanny’s attacks towards “Fragile Fred,” something she scribbles in her notebook, show Fred cannot "take it," only capable of dishing out snideness and destructive tendencies. Fred’s saltiness over Fanny’s meteoric popularity calls into question another white dude’s inability to view his gender-equal as an actual equal (or better), while Fanny’s hot-take jabs emasculate a (mediocre) man who allows his machismo to nurture the selfish demon within. Punchlines become less about garnering applause and more about the endlessly fruitless task of one-upping perceived competitors for some life-affirming victory that’s no more important than the worthlessness that’ll follow mere hours once fandom and glamor have worn dull. Hence, the less-and-less subtle tension becomes unmissable as viewers wait to see which character will break first, and worse, how their horror storytelling turns from pretending to real-world punishment.
If Scare Me is an experiment in low-budget creepiness using verbal manipulation methods, it’s a smash-hit. What Josh Ruben achieves without costumes, inside a powerless cabin, with only the enthusiasm of three actors (plus Rebecca Drysdale as a chatty rideshare driver), architects more endearing horror narrations than projects with millions of dollars and ensemble casts. There’s an art to enrapturing an audience, like a skilled stand-up comic or keynote speaker, the same way Scare Me never talks itself out of your attention. Truly one of the more impressive examples this year of how important storytelling is to cinematic endeavors, hoisted by chill-seekers at the top of their respective games.
Scare Me hits Shudder on October 1st 2020.
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