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There’s a fine line, tonally, between knowing and smug, a line that writer-director Josh Ruben’s ambitiously contained comedy horror Scare Me treads precariously, its story of storytellers telling stories to scare each other almost stumbling over its own ego. But while there are lapses, an overindulgence here and there, Ruben mostly keeps his canny debut feature afloat and us entertained, if not exactly scared …
Ruben plays Fred, a bitter 37-year-old frustrated by the fact that his desire to be a writer isn’t quite matched with his actual talent as a writer, hoping that a weekend away at a remote cabin in the Catskills might turn one of his ideas into something tangible. But he can’t move past a hokey logline (werewolves have guns … get revenge?) and his block is further compounded when he bumps into another writer also staying in the area. But the smart, sharp-tongued Fanny (Aya Cash) is a real writer, with a bestselling novel and all, and her success makes Fred feel even more of a failure. Later that evening, during a freak power outage, Fanny turns up on Fred’s doorstep and the two hunker down together, resentment brewing. To fill the time, Fanny comes up with an idea: they will take it in turn to tell scary stories to show off their creative abilities. Fred reluctantly agrees and the night starts to unravel.
With such a premise, one might expect a horror anthology, the pair’s unlikely game acting as a framing device for a triptych of separate tales, but given the subgenre’s overexposure in the last decade and how miss-and-hit it so often is, it’s a relief that Ruben keeps us trapped in the cabin with them. It’s up to Fred and Fanny not only to construct their stories but to perform them effectively, a test of acting skills for both Ruben and Cash as well as patience for those with little tolerance for sitting on what closely resembles an actors’ workshop. It’s another fine line to be toed but the pair prove mostly adept at commanding the room as well as providing snarky pointers for each other, an uneasy tension expanding by the minute.
The late inclusion of a third wheel (SNL’s Chris Redd playing a horror-loving pizza delivery guy) doesn’t really add much but as the film continues, it becomes clear that simply scaring and amusing us isn’t all that Ruben has on his mind. The character of Fred, who positions himself as a bookish liberal hipster, is quietly angry with a world that’s not given him the opportunities he feels he deserves while Fanny, a woman, has excelled in a way that he could only dream of (she brags that her hit novel is loved by the Guardian, no less). He’s the worst kind of toxic male, the kind who thinks a flannel shirt and a Rachel Yamagata playlist makes him woke, yet buried not far beneath the surface is a familiar stench of incensed entitlement that has him raging at Fanny’s success. How dare she when he hasn’t? Or even worse, how dare she when he can’t?
While Fanny might make the odd, deserving jab at Fred’s predicament, she’s mostly encouraging (“Do the work!” she keeps saying) but the good gets buried by Fred’s inadequacy, and as beer and cocaine cloud the lines between fiction and reality, things go downhill. I’d argue that the road to violence could have been a bit shorter, Ruben allowing a little too much flab in what should be a lean little tale, its 104-minute runtime needing some snips to feel snappier. But it works for the most part because of Ruben and Cash and the spiky chemistry they share. Cash, who was a dimmed light in the obnoxiously eye-rolling sitcom You’re the Worst, is having a moment right now, with a deliciously vile performance in The Boys and now this, deftly flipping between light and dark by the minute, a confident, calculated turn that made me curious what she’d be like on stage, the whole film itself feeling more like a production adapted for the screen.
While Scare Me doesn’t actually end up scaring us (the stories being told are more “Oh, OK” than “AGH, OK!”), Ruben’s tricky, goofy hybrid does just about enough for that not to really matter, its cabin-fire playfulness proving contagious, a nasty game we might not want to play but will happily watch instead.
Source: The Guardian
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