Josh Ruben has definitely seen “The Shining,” likely more than once, and probably took notes at least half of the time. Having boned up on his horror classics, the actor-turned-writer-director gleefully kills more than a few of those darlings in his clever feature debut, “Scare Me.” Bolstered by a creative storytelling set-up, Ruben and his very game co-star Aya Cash skewer horror tropes as well as cultural obsessions ranging from TV talent shows to the Bechdel Test.
The result is — perhaps too much. With a padded running time that clocks in at nearly 105 minutes, the film seems like the perfect pick for a snappy, scary 90-minute event. Initially imagining writer’s block and creative stultification as man’s greatest horrors (see: “The Shining”) before moving into a deeper exploration of the trauma of gender relations (no, really: “The Shining”), “Scare Me” packs ambitious ideas inside a small-scale concept.
Fred is a writer/director/sometimes actor (Ruben is nothing if not charmingly self-reflexive) who has escaped to a remote cabin to work on his latest screenplay. Early annoyances abound, from a chatty driver (Rebecca Drysdale) who pushes Fred’s most sensitive buttons (no, he probably hasn’t written movies you’ve seen, chatty driver lady) to his single, very bad idea for a script (“Werewolves have guns .. Get revenge ?” reads his otherwise empty Word doc).
Then, poking at rom-com tropes, Fred finds a muse. It’s something of a meet-cute for Fred and Fanny (Cash), who are both out for a snowy run and having a tough time of it. There’s a twist, though, and a good one that Ruben somehow sells: Fanny is also a writer kicking it at a cabin to pen her next hit. Except, unlike Fred, Fanny is a household name, a bestselling author whom Fred recognizes instantly as being the mind behind a lauded horror novel, the kind of thing he’d, well, kill to write.
Fred and Fanny hit the same wacky wavelength with glee, tipping between friendly banter and very obvious professional jealousy, often in the same moment. Hours into their friendship, a well-timed blackout forces them into Fred’s cabin (the single-location scheme is used to fine effect). As they natter around with dueling Crypt Keeper impressions, Fanny cooks up a fun idea. “Let’s tell each other scary stories,” she whispers with glee. How can Fred possibly say no?
As Fred and Fanny unspool their tales, the stories come to lo-fi life. Fred describes a gnarled tree, and a creepy tree-shaped shadow suddenly appears. Fanny breaks into a chilling narrative about a scary grandpa, and sound effects ramp up to approximate his squeaky oxygen tank and weirdo dog. As Fanny is having her fun, something more sinister takes root in Fred, whose self-loathing might be more wide-ranging than it appears. “Are you one of these ‘white dudes will destroy the Earth’ feminist… people?,” he snaps after Fanny offers a character note on one of his stories.
But here’s the truth: Fanny is better at this. She’s a better storyteller and she’s got a more creative mind, and as that becomes increasingly clear, Fred continues to crumble. The script is bent toward tackling some of the most pressing issues in Hollywood (sexism, racism, toxic masculinity, and more), and Fred and Fanny’s funny dynamic is a smart way to do it. When the script tries to get more overt with already-obvious observations, however, things start to fall apart.
Ruben seems to be aware when the film threatens to turn slack. Just as Fred and Fanny appear close to turning to more woke-leaning observations to power the film through its final act, we benefit from the charms of “SNL” cast member Chris Redd as a high-energy pizza delivery guy. He’s a fantastic foil for the duo, ramping up Cash’s zippy brand of sarcasm (and Fanny’s storytelling prowess) while further highlighting just how rotten Fred (and his flagging narrative abilities) truly are.
Ruben fudges a bit on the film’s finale, bouncing between what seems like both an obvious twist and a misdirected piece of storytelling to stage one last Fred-and-Fanny showdown. It’s not at the level of the “Shining” hedge maze, but that’s not what he’s trying to do here. Instead, it speaks to his aims to marry the scary and the silly and the smart all in one. Here’s hoping other filmmakers are taking notes, too.
“Scare Me” is now streaming on Shudder.
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