by Jordan King
Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, the multi-hyphenate CollegeHumor alum’s feature directorial debut, is an absolute doozy of a genre-reflexive slice of fried comical, creepy gold. Through the bare minimum of set, cast, and spectacle, Ruben successfully takes the idea of telling spooky tales back to its roots in the oral fireside folktale tradition, placing imagination over explicit shock and awe tactics to devilishly delightful effect.
The film’s set up is as simple as it gets. Struggling would-be writer and actor Fred (Ruben himself, in a wickedly meta move) is on his way to a log cabin retreat to crack on with a story he’s been working on about a werewolf (FUN FACT: Ruben’s follow-up to this film is Werewolves Within, which is – you guessed it – a werewolf story). Whether he actually has any intention of writing it, or whether he just wants to look like he’s writing it is very much ambiguous – he affects the demeanour of a defeated creative type who is jealous of everyone and frustrated by his own comparative mediocrity. His fortunes seem to change, for better and perhaps worse, when he happens across maverick horror author extraordinaire, Fanny (Aya Cash), who is also staying in the area.
Whether by fate, dumb luck, or the simple need to get these two people in the same place so sparks can fly, a power cut sees Fanny and Fred find themselves alone together in a Cabin in the Woods. Resolving to try and make each other Scream with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that may give each other Goosebumps, viewers are invited to see What [They] Do in the Shadows as they create a Fright Night all of their own.
Through MadLib improvisational energy, authentically spooky sound design, atmospheric camerawork, and inspired use of the single-location setting, Ruben’s film excels in evoking the myriad forms of The Evil Dead through Fanny and Fred’s alternately chilling and chuckleworthy Tales of the Unexpected. We begin with Fred’s own silly werewolf revenge story, an opener that lets us in on the ways in which Ruben’s film will play with sound effects and voice modulation to implicitly evoke what any number of other films would be beholden to explicitly – and therefore less effectively – revealing. As the night wears on however, Fanny takes the terrorsome Tales From the Crypt in increasingly dark directions, leaning into and subverting expectations at every turn whilst giving Aya Cash a chance to flex her frighteningly impressive array of niche “tropey horror character” impressions – her Hungarian old grandpa routine is legitimately unhinged. The one-upmanship keeps the pace and keeps us enthralled in an organically anthological approach to storytelling-within-storytelling, whilst each new story brings with it further revelations about Fred’s inadequacies and frustrations as a man, and Fanny’s inadequacies and frustrations as a woman with men like Fred.
This playfully executed Creepshow flags a little when a third party is introduced who may have seen one too many Scary Movies, stretching the economic directorial and technical approach with some out-and-out formal inventions that are sort-of explained away by some illicit substance consumption, but overall this deceptively clever subversion and critique of established horror tropes, male fragility, and a lack of imagination in scary stories these days is a winner. Cash and Ruben make for a fantastic screen pairing, bouncing off each others’ abrasive character traits with real electricity. And – for this horror nerd – the whole set-up, which harkens back to the famous tale of that weekend at the Villa Diodati in 1816 where Mary Shelley, Percy Bysse Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori found themselves locked indoors and hankering to scare themselves silly as they conjured some of the greatest works of horror fiction of all time is just too glorious (gorious?) an opportunity to miss.
With wit, wicked invention, and a clear sense of genre awareness from both a cinematic and narrative perspective, Josh Ruben’s Scare Me builds and builds in humour and horror to a point where the ending can inevitably only put a bit of a dampener on proceedings. But then, when the drinks have been flowing and the stories have been too, the end of the night at any good party always comes as a disappointment. On the whole though, such is the ingenious nature of the film and the confidence in its execution that you’ll come away feeling supremely satisfied. Scare Me is a Deathtrap you’ll willingly fall into.
Scare Me is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!