Anyone can tell a story, but how many of us can tell a story well? In Josh Ruben’s horror-comedy Scare Me, he shows us how a story isn’t just good for what it is about, the power of a good story is in how it’s told.
Fred (Ruben) is a struggling writer (same, bro, same). He has ideas and is probably sufficiently talented, but he struggles with the actual writing part (same, bro, same). He goes off to a cabin in the woods to escape for a little while to get into his writing, but a big kick to his ego appears in the form of Fanny (Aya Cash). Fanny is not Fred, she is a successful writer who is doing well for herself. She has a keen mind and eviscerates Fred’s confidence by being rather frank about Fred’s lack of imagination as a writer. However, he has an opportunity to redeem himself after a power outage when Fanny challenges him to scare her with a scary story. What follows is nearly two hours of a celebration of storytelling with only your body, voice and imagination as your tools.
On the paper it seems rather boring to watch two people just tell each other stories alone in a cabin, however, Scare Me is so much more. With only the cabin acting as our main venue for the duration of the film, Ruben expertly utilises the space as our two leads recount their horrific tales of werewolves, creepy grandfathers, trolls, and more.
The film is for the actors, as Cash and Ruben physically and vocally get into their characters, creating the atmosphere of their stories, and generally getting into the theatrics of their storytelling. Cash and Ruben are a gold duo as they flawlessly bounce off each other with pitch-perfect comedic timing and expert improv skills. Whether scripted or not, neither one misses a beat as the two characters go deeper into their horrific tales.
Alongside the actors is a score and sound design that truly transports you into the stories. Starting with sound effects and visual gags from the actors themselves moving to non-diegetic sounds and visual flares that derive from the stories they tell. (Fanny has a hilarious original song that she performs during a “singing contestant possessed by a demon” story and it should definitely be submitted for Best Original Song at the Oscars).
Ruben plays with a variety of visual and sound techniques that never actually take us out of the cabin itself, rather they transport us into the stories. On top of the sound design, lighting and camera angles are crucial tools to simulate the stories and give the film that extra something that constantly keeps us engaged. Ruben simulates that experience that the teens in Are you Afraid of the Dark? are probably going through when the audience of the show are shown the fully rendered versions of their stories as they remain huddled around the campfire. Scare Me is basically the “what if we never left the campfire?” version of the show. That’s what makes Scare Me so fun, it gives you that feeling of being with friends and trying to one-up each other with your imagination. That feeling is ingrained into the film as Fanny and Fred often speak directly to the camera and engage in fourth-wall-breaking behaviour that makes you feel like the third person in the room —or the fourth when Chris Redd’s Carlo joins the party.
Sidenote: Redd plays a small part but he is a crucial addition that livens up second-half of the film as things begin to plateau with just Fred and Fanny on-screen. His comedic abilities and improv skills work perfectly with Cash’s as the two take reins.
While there is a great deal of fun going on, there is a serious undercurrent throughout the film as it jumps headfirst into the dangers of toxic masculinity, and the all-consuming insecurity Fanny ignites within Fred. As their night carries on Fanny never lets up to appease Fred’s ego which infuriates him. The “horror” in this horror-comedy is watching Fred be every man that has ever felt lesser than a woman, and as many women know that is a dangerous situation. As the wild tales of trolls and possession fill the air Fred’s all too familiar disdain for a woman who is frankly better than him slowly pushes him to the edge.
Ruben is clearly inspired by the many discussions women have been having of feeling the need to undermine themselves in hopes of not offending men, and he crafts a character that is the manifestation of those guys who expect that, and Fanny is the everywoman navigating that crappy situation. As far as “MeToo” movies go, Scare Me doesn’t have that self-congratulatory vibe where you feel the filmmakers are saying, “Look at me, aren’t I woke?” Instead, Ruben avoids cliches such as the overtly strong female character trope with Fanny, and instead, he points the finger right at Fred (and himself), outlining all the qualities that men need to work on within themselves. The messaging is subtle, until the third act, but it never takes away from the generally enjoyable nature of the film. Ruben effectively sprinkles this darker element throughout the film so that it never feels too preachy or throws the film off balance.
Scare Me is a very enjoyable and subtle horror that has fun with the power of storytelling. It is perfectly at home with the many horror offerings on Shudder as it is a celebration of the art of horror stories and the imagination needed to make for a fun and thrilling experience. Expertly utilising all the technical components at his disposal as a filmmaker Ruben crafts a witty and charming horror-comedy that is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and is a very promising look at what can be accomplished when you use your imagination. Many novice filmmakers can learn a thing or two from Scare Me about how to make the most out of very little.
Scare Me is available to stream exclusively on Shudder now
by Ferdosa Abdi