Scare Me

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There are two interesting things going on in Scare Me, which looks at first glance (and probably deliberately) like a Stephen King-style horror story about a writer having a tough time of it out in a cabin in the woods.

Director/writer Josh Ruben also plays struggling writer Fred, here to crank out a horror tale that’s meant to save him from his humdrum job in advertising, though he spends more time doing impressions of Jack Nicholson in The Shining than actually writing.

Out for a run the next day, he meets Fanny (Aya Cash) who turns out only to be the hottest writer of horror fiction right now, her book Venus a runaway smash that’s been read by everyone, except Fred.

She makes it abundantly clear that she has no interest in him at any level. However, fate in the form of a power outage throws them together and they decide to play a game called Scare Me – taking turns to tell campfire shockers until the lights come back on.

Here’s where things get interesting. As Fred kicks off with a story about a werewolf, at first it’s just Fred, his gestures, reactions and vocal inflections that are conveying the story. But as he goes on, sounds, lighting effects and musical stabs from what we imagine this story would be like if it was a movie start to bleed into Fred’s one-man narration. In terms the ancient Greeks would understand, the mimetic (the “show don’t tell”) is invading the diegetic (the narrated story).

Josh Ruben gets into his role
Fred gets right into character. Picture: Sundance Institute

Fanny tells a story about an evil grandpa, Fred responds with one about a troll, and all the while this bleed-across is becoming more pronounced – lighting adds emphasis, an orchestra add drama, at one point in Fanny’s story she says “If this was a movie I’d dolly in real slow right now,” and the camera does just that.

It’s a neat narrative trick. There are plenty of films with both diegetic and mimetic elements (every flashback movie, every movie with a narrator in voiceover) but not many (any?) that do it in quite this way.

That’s writer Ruben’s trick. His second is to add in a gender-politics angle. Fanny is super successful; Fred is a beta male who wants to be alpha, but he’s also a guy who wants to be acclaimed as a writer rather than do the actual work. Fanny’s famous book is called Venus, which is where women are from, if you remember your 1990s slogans. This means Fred is from Mars, planet of war. No, the film does not have a happy ending…

Whether gender politics is really what’s going on here – rather than status politics pure and simple – is debatable, since that’s a porous boundary. Either way this isn’t meant to be a scary film. Instead it’s an exercise in form with trainspottery references for horror nuts which also calls for massive performances by Ruben, Cash and, eventually Chris Redd (the pizza delivery guy also gets involved), a livewire comedian with a pantomime style that fits right into the others’ increasingly excessive performances.

At one point, in fact, there are three people facing the camera essentially shouting out of the screen at the audience. That’s entertainment!

Scare Me – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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