With a drought of theatrical releases this Halloween season, I’ve sought the products of various streaming services to fulfill my horror movie quota. On Oct. 1 the streaming service Shudder released Josh Ruben’s directorial debut feature “Scare Me.” At an hour and 44 minutes, this meta-horror comedy has about 40 minutes of entertainment hidden within more than an hour of well-acted but dull character studies and an overconcentration of heavy-handed horror references. This movie conceptually breaks new ground but does so tediously.
“Scare Me” is about a writer named Fred (Josh Ruben) who rents a cabin in the woods to forget his chaotic life and focus on writing his big horror screenplay. One morning, he bumps into an extremely successful horror author, Fanny (Aya Cash), who is on her own writer’s retreat. Later that day, during a blackout, she stops by Fred’s cabin for a little entertainment and forces him into a scary story competition. The bulk of the movie consists of the two performing horror stories for each other by prancing around Fred’s cabin interpreting the improvised stories, aided only lightly by some visual effects and musical stings. As the night goes on, their stories become grander and the two begin working together to create fantastical outlines of horror movies.
This movie has four characters total, essentially one set, and takes place over a single day. That meagerness, combined with unlikeable characters and sad attempts at scares, makes for a boring and frustrating movie. After the opening, the first act is insufferably slow to the point where I considered shutting the movie off despite planning to review it. Imagine a relative stranger pitching you the half-baked plot to their cliche horror novel, add a werewolf claw and you have the first act of this movie. You don’t care about the characters or their relationships so when they begin acting out their spooky horror stories it feels like you’re watching two strangers laughing at their own inside joke.
In act two, Fred and Fanny begin to work together. They each had their turns telling stories, with Fanny giving Fred some constructive criticism and then ignoring criticism Fred gave in return. The best story is one Fred and Fanny do together. It’s about a troll with a very Machiavellian moral code who lives in the air ducts of an office building. Everyone in the building feigns ignorance of the troll until one night he encourages a female worker to kill her misogynistic boss. The story is simple and unfolds as the two leads bounce ideas off of each other while staying in character.
The plot they come up with is creative, and there are real moments of joy and comedy on top of the horror story baseline. For the first time in the movie, Fred and Fanny’s relationship feels actualized. After this scene, the real world and character development become more prominent and the second-best story, about a possessed singer who made a deal with the devil to get on “The Big Talent Show Live” takes place. Later, Fred finally convinces Fanny to act out the book that made her famous. The combination of her masterpiece being brought to the forefront of their game and the addition of cocaine starts Fred on a jealous streak.
Act three was where this movie went off the rails. I wasn’t bored, I was dissatisfied. It’s time for our leads’ arcs to end, which means no more spooky stories or wacky dialogue. Act three is where this film attempts real horror and it did not work. Fred’s jealousy has warped into unhinged anger as he realizes that Fanny had been taking notes on his tumultuous life for literary inspiration. Success stories, especially female success stories should be celebrated, but Fanny falls into this awful cinematic archetype of the strong successful woman who belittles and undermines others to prop herself up. This character type is often referred to as sassy or badass when discussed in the media but it came off as cocky and rude.
Fanny is a gifted writer who got lucky, so she has a need to make Fred feel like a failure. She calls him talentless and his storytelling sloppy and vague. She’s not wrong, but she’s telling this to someone she’s known for less than a day. Fanny was unapologetically mean all night and then had the nerve to use Fred’s life as character inspiration: I get why Fred is going crazy. When the scene devolves into Fred chasing Fanny around the house with a fire poker, I just didn’t care that much. I sympathized with Fred for most of the movie but I never empathized with Fanny, despite her being the far more talented of the two.
Despite my dissatisfaction, I don’t regard this movie as an utter waste of time. I actually feel like this movie was kind of groundbreaking. It may not have been executed in a way that makes it worth the attention of a general audience but I have never seen a meta-horror movie that dissected the genre this meticulously. Horror references permeate the movie, while none of these references are very clever, they let the viewers know that this is a self-aware movie.
Cliches and subtle references to horror subgenres are present in every story the group tells. This movie is also very trusting. “Scare Me” relies heavily on its actors, who do a fantastic job. For two actors that I haven’t seen in mainstream cinema, they carried this film. Even when I hated certain characters or felt a relationship wasn’t well established, I was always immersed by the acting of Fred and Fanny.
If “Scare Me” was a short film about two writers trying to scare each other with improvised stories, it could have been deserving of a watch and a recommendation. However, this movie was nearly two hours long and held my attention for less than one. I can’t in good faith recommend this movie to anyone outside of pretentious horror fanatics. “Scare Me” impressed me for its attempts to break out of strict boundaries set for horror, but failed to entertain me.