Directed by: Josh Ruben. Starring: Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, Chris Redd. Runtime: 1h 43 min.
In Josh Ruben’s directorial debut Scare Me, he plays Fred, a has-been-before-he-ever-was ad executive trying to make it as a horror writer. He goes up to a cabin for the weekend to focus on his writing and meets best-selling horror author Fanny (Aya Cash) who is writing at a neighboring cabin. When their power goes out, they decide to join forces and tell each other scary stories, where she suggests the idea by simply saying: “Scare me.”
I’ll be honest right away as I think I had false expectations going into this. I read into the IMDb logline a bit too much, as it says “the more Fred and Fanny commit to their tales, the more the stories come to life in their Catskills cabin. The horrors of reality manifest when Fred confronts his ultimate fear.” Now, my understanding from that is that this would be a Tulpa situation where the stories they tell literally come to life in their cabin. That’s what I wanted as a horror fan, and there are times – through sound effects like creaking above them – that it seems like Ruben hints there’s something in the cabin with them, but it never leans into that as there’s a preference to stay within comedy.
The stories come to life because they throw themselves into the stories through acting, as this becomes a theatrical showcase for the ranges of its two stars, and eventually for Chris Redd as Carlo the pizza delivery guy (who does introduce a welcome energy). The way sound effects are utilized is creative as they do their own sounds with their voices during their stories.
Some of these stories are strong, but this has the consistency of Saturday Night Love – when it’s good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, it’s just really damn annoying. The different tales give this a skit-based structure and some of the comedy here makes this feel like a Halloween-themed sketch of College Humour, a show which Ruben wrote and starred on. Some of the comedy tries too damn hard, but some of the writing here is truly clever.
There’s commentary about people stealing ideas, and Ruben’s screenplay is at its sharpest in these scenes about intellectual property and ideas, as well as what it means to be a better writer. When we actually get to the root of both of these people as storytellers and know what makes them tick as characters, this film’s killer.
Most of these stories are just ideas that writers or aspiring writers have written down before (I know I’ve had similar ideas to half these stories written in a notebook somewhere). An exchange really defines that side of the film where Fred tells her the premise of a boy whose parents are killed by a werewolf and the boy grows up to hunt the werewolf down. She asks him what’s the story. “What do you mean, what’s the story? I just told you,” says Fred. Franny responds, “No, that’s an idea. What actually happens?” It’s intriguing watching these barebones ideas be workshopped by these two writers on the fly into something that truly comes to life, feeling like a story with a soul.
Some of the freshness is taken from this film by no fault of its own, but because this is the third film I’ve seen in the past two months that dissect storytelling (the others being The Oak Room and The Mortuary Collection). Ruben’s able to find new angles in, especially with the creativity of the sound effects and how many impressions and layers to their performance are thrown in here. Ruben’s great at it – his brief Jack Nicholson impression is gold – but having never seen Aya Cash act, she is a delightful surprise.
She plays the blunt aspect of her character so well, though the character’s a bit of an acquired taste as she’s condescending and arrogant which is off-putting at first, but Cash’s comedic timing is so perfect that she is so fun to watch, especially in the second half. She’s a great storyteller and Fred being intimated by that, as he’s not successful at this point in his life, is relatable and her personality makes sense by the end of the film. Fred is not always likable, either, so they balance each other out.
Cash is best, too, in a scene where they tell a story about a girl who sells her soul to be on American Idol, and the song she sings is amazing because it’s so peppy and happy but the lyrics do not match the vibe. This three-minute kind-of music video was, by far, my favourite part of the film. I also liked where this went in the third act, especially because it leans a bit more into the horror here, and that hooked me.
To end on a mediocre note, I found it disappointing that the humour tries too hard to please viewers. There’s an over-the-top nature that can turn off some viewers, especially if the story they’re telling isn’t interesting. The actors bring this to life so well that it’s a shame it doesn’t always work. It comes off feeling more like a great performance piece than a well-rounded horror film. It made me laugh at times but, as a horror comedy with an emphasis on the comedy, it rarely actually Scare(d) Me.
Scare Me started streaming on Shudder in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and New Zealand on Oct. 1.