There is something unaffectedly magical about storytelling - gathering with friends around a campfire telling yarns about yesteryear or sharing the new anecdote that has been burning in the back of your brain...
...When a fable mesmerizes a willing, captive audience the enchantment incites all of our imaginations to come alive. The story that does this the most successfully is often a scary one.
When done right, a tale about creaking doors and things that go bump in the night will send chills up the spines of both the storyteller and the listener. The words are eerily familiar, verging on reality. This notion is captured perfectly in Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, a beautifully simple film that has a lot to say about life. The plot follows two writers, of varying degrees of success, as they pass the time by attempting to frighten one another with words. It’s heart-wrenchingly good, and a lot more than it may seem at face value.
The premise and set up is simple. Fred (played by Ruben) is an aspiring writer who needs an escape from the dull and dreaded everyday existence and retreats to a cabin in the woods to write his epic film about a werewolf. Fanny (Aya Cash), a famous novelist who wrote what is considered the best horror novel of all time, also happens to be visiting the area and staying nearby. Despite a pleasant but at times uneasy first encounter, Fanny decides to head over to Fred’s cabin following a storm induced power outage. It is then her idea to exchange ghost stories and see who can scare each other the most. This plays out as an expressly fun way to show imagination coming to life. It also shows the truly collaborative nature of storytelling - as the narrative evolves each character pushes the other to tell a better story: with snide remarks from Fanny or hints of jealousy from Fred here and there.
What starts out as a playful endeavor becomes a live-action enactment of the fantasies they’ve concocted. Each transforms from the narrator of their own fiction to an actor in the others. It’s a completely engaging and unique way for Ruben to tell a story. As each moment passes, and every new story begins, the atmosphere around them seems to take the shape of words being spoken. If the character hears a rattle on a window, the cabin’s own windows begin to shake. If they are performing on an American-Idol-esque stage, it’s almost as if you can hear the backing band and the audience. Eventually, due to hunger, they order take-out. But it’s more than just a pizza that arrives. They also receive a third storyteller in the form of Carlo (Chris Redd), who happens to be Fanny’s biggest fan and is delighted to be part of the scary story match-up.
For as much fun as the film is (and it’s filled with laughs), it also carries with it a sense of dread, as well as social commentary. The combination works on every level. There are very human moments that rear their ugly head, sometimes foreshadowed and other times less so. They’re both shocking and all a very appropriate conversation to be having in 2020. It’s these moments that set this film apart from the run of the mill film it could have been if it just chose to be a comedy, or leaned too heavily into the drama of it all. Instead, it’s a perfect blend of both humor and horror, and examination of the human condition. Amidst all of the joy, there are moments where Fred freaks out, his past is called into question, and his jealousy of Franny’s success is a bit too toxic. Meanwhile, Franny’s initial treatment of Fred seems like a defensive mechanism of a woman who is often told that she does not deserve the success she has.
This film is all about the script and the performances by its two leads. Ruben, who wrote and directed it, and Cash perform the script to perfection and do each moment justice. The other biggest strength is sound design, where a story that is two people in a room telling stories could easily fall flat. You can so easily hear the imagination of the two characters pondering what an attacking werewolf might sound like and the audience gets to hear as if whatever they are talking about is actually happening. It not only helps keep an audience engaged, but it sets the stage for the intense ending.
Some of the messaging in this film might turn off a portion of viewers, but it’s vital messaging for the world we live in. A world where sadly gatekeeping and judgment seem to still seep in a bit too much in the world of horror. This film isn’t overly preachy in the slightest, in fact, every bit of messaging used advances the plot and makes you return to certain moments or lines of dialogue by the end of the film.
Without question, Scare Me is a very important film. Watch it.
Scare Me becomes available to stream on Shudder starting October 1st.
By Justin Drabek
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