Scare Me (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Josh Ruben takes a simple premise of two people telling each other scary stories and builds a story around it. But this is no ordinary horror-comedy in which we jump in and out of scenarios where colorful characters are played by different actors and settings change depending on the story being told. No, it takes place in one cabin. And the two leads—Ruben who plays Fred and Aya Cash who plays Fanny—embody their characters’ own creations: young, old, human male, human female, monsters. They even mimic movie-like sound effects in order to enhance their storytelling. Because, you see, although Fred and Fanny are strangers who have become somewhat friendly, they are in competition—two writers, the former aspiring and the other renowned, who wish to prove he or she is the better storyteller than the other.
We meet Fred first. He is driven up the Overlook Mountain (the work provides a chockfull of references to other films) by Bettina (Rebecca Drysdale), a self-proclaimed writer herself. From the moment we lay eyes on Fred there is a sadness about him, an unhappiness he finds himself unable to crawl out from. Fred tells Bettina he wishes to get away from the city so he can write his werewolf novel. But there’s something missing. When he speaks of what he is about to create, there is no passion, no hunger in those eyes. The driver seems to be more excited about it than he does. And so we ask ourselves: Why is this man, who works in advertising, heading up the mountains—really? Maybe he does wish to write. But why? The premise intrigues.
While out for a jog, Fred meets Fanny, a writer whose novel titled “Venus” has been lauded as one of the scariest works of all time by The New York Times and other literary outlets. Fred is genuinely excited to meet a successful writer; perhaps she could show him some pointers. Fanny is sarcastic, dismissive, lacking humility, wary but curious enough about the stranger. Later that night during a power outage, she comes over to his cabin. We wonder why. He showered her with positive attention during their one-sided meet-cute. Clearly, she relishes attention. What she did not expect is to be challenged. When pushed just enough, notice how she makes a nasty habit of referring to Fred as just another emasculated white man. Still, perhaps she has a point. Fanny may be abrasive at times but she’s observant.
Are Fred and Fanny’s stories scary? Not at all. Contents of such stories are boring and formulaic—a notable shortcoming because they are meant to be scary on top of being comic. The best horror story of the bunch—precisely because it brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe—involves a little girl who is terrified of her grandfather and the way his oxygen tank creaks when it is being dragged across a surface. No green-eyed monster popping out of the swamp. No masked serial killer wielding a machete. Just a child who possesses minimal understanding of mortality and even lesser appreciation for guilt. When a story is rooted in humanity, there is power behind it.
Humor, which I found to be more effective, is secondary to the stories and stems from the performances themselves. I felt Ruben and Cash’ passion for this project. They are not afraid to look silly, ugly, or wrong as long as they are able to emulate specific sounds and voices that fit their stories or jokes they hope to land—sometimes voices from popular media, from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” to William Gaines and Steven Dodd’s “Tales from the Crypt.” There is a joy to their facial exaggeration and body contortions; I caught myself smiling and grinning due to the sheer energy emanating from the screen. I wished the horror aspects were as admirable.
There are delightful qualities to be found in “Scare Me,” but scare me it did not. Especially weak is the final showdown between tyro and professional writers which I found to be a cop-out. There is so much setup and accumulated tension between the two that we expect an explosion. Instead, it goes out with barely a whimper. The final fifteen minutes might have benefited from a rewrite.