2020 | unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, Chris Redd | written & directed by Josh Ruben | 1 hr 44 mins |
The delightfully meta, minimalist film Scare Me doesn’t fit into a genre box at all. It’s a story about scary stories, a celebration of camp fire storytelling juiced up with cinematic editing and sound effects to open up the film’s single-location so that it never feels restrictive – in fact it feels like the opposite, an imagination machine where anything can happen.
Fred (writer/director Josh Ruben) is a struggling writer retreating to a cabin in the woods to complete his werewolf revenge novel. Along the way he meets Fanny (Aya Cash), the bestselling author of Venus, a feminist zombie novel that took the world by storm and is working on her next project. The power goes out, the fireplace goes on and soon the two writers, both of whom have massive chips on their shoulder about their experience in the process, challenge each other to reveal the scary stories in their head, acting them out for the other and workshopping edits and details.
I love movies about the writing process. One of the most satisfying of these is a B-runner in Happy Christmas when Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey talk through way through the plot and wording of their own erotic novel. Scare Me is that runner taken to feature length. A concept that a big studio wouldn’t touch because it has no plot or character arc itself. Once the stage is set we get to watch Josh Ruben and Aya Cash (coming off of stealing the show as Stormfront in The Boys) act out werewolf, zombie and ghost tropes in a large 1 room cabin. We get werewolves attacking a family, a ghostly grandpa, a company troll, a music competitor who sold her soul to the devil and a zombie virus that targets women. It’s a blast.
I don’t so much have issues with what Ruben is doing here, but questions. Why does the movie go the routes it does? It sets up little flaws in Fred and then pays those off, but treats Fanny as pretty much a perfect writer. Fred is written as a hack and a lazy one who feels he is cheated and unlucky in life. Fanny is written as decidedly more talented, inventive and serious about the craft, but is also arrogant, claiming it’s only talent and work that create success in the entertainment industry. It’s hard to believe a writer as obsessed with making assumptions about Fred based on the “white male” trope would think out-of-the-box enough to write a ground-breaking novel. Why isn’t there a seed of unease to mine here as Fanny is secretly worried about being able to produce a follow-up to such a big hit? Cash could have easily pulled off these extra dimensions.
(P.S. It’s also kind of annoying how Fanny blows off the werewolf genre as peaking at An American Werewolf in London. No Ginger Snaps? Dog Soldiers? Nothing?)
The competitive unease between the two is brought to a halt by the introduction of a third, a pizza delivery guy (Chris Redd) who also likes acting out scary stories, preferably about dead babies. There is nothing wrong with the character or Redd’s delightful performance, but it’s a comic relief role that deflates the escalating tension of our leads.
The film’s ending is the biggest question. It isn’t good. Ruben can’t figure out how to end the wrap-around. He doesn’t have a twist up his sleeve and having the morning come and everyone just walk away wouldn’t work. Having Fred learn from the experience and become a better writer apparently isn’t an option either. You know, because he’s a “white male”. The climax here is disappointingly literal. I was actually in disbelief at what I was seeing. That a movie so attune to calling out clichés would fully embrace such cliché. This is where we are going? Instead of the two authors competition producing an in-story competition or a story that synergizes their styles or anything clever, Ruben lights a fuse and blows up the movie in the final 5 minutes, then does it again in the final 30 seconds.
While the ending is shockingly misguided, 95% of Scare Me is a great time. A wholly original concept with a clever execution by two willing performers and enough cinematic skill to make the stories come to life with almost no special effects. Scare Me is going to baffle some viewers. It isn’t a horror movie or a comedy or even a solid story in it’s own right – and that’s what makes it feel so fresh and unique.