Written and Directed by: Josh Ruben
Starring: Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, and Chris Redd
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Want to hear a scary story?
Maya Angelou once said that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” a sentiment that cuts right to the heart of the matter, really. Writing can be a lot of things: joyous, cathartic, frustrating, but I do think agony is the common thread uniting it all. Maybe it’s because writing is such an intensely personal act and that anything it produces doubles as a referendum of our very selves. Just doing it sometimes feels like an impossible heist to stave off imposter syndrome for another day. In some ways, writing is an act of constantly bartering with your own self-esteem, with that voice in your head that nags at you and forces you to doubt if you’ll be able to pull it off again. Sometimes, that voice points towards others and wonders why you’re not as good. This might be the most agonizing part of the process: seeing how others seem to do it so effortlessly, even though they’re probably enduring this same agonizing ritual themselves. Writers like to pretend they’re in conversation, but, deep down, it feels more like competition, even when it shouldn’t be. It’s all very silly, this charade of excavating our inner thoughts and scrawling them out for others to read, effectively dangling ourselves from a hook, waiting for someone to pin us as we wriggle on a wall.
In its own offbeat, irreverent way, Scare Me captures the complete farce of this tragicomic arc: the exhilarating highs, the miserable lows, and all of the nonsense in between. It’s about both the infectious joys of storytelling and its sobering moments of reckoning, as writer/director/star Josh Ruben captures a particularly dark night of one writer’s soul, and I mean that quite literally. When wannabe horror author Fred (Ruben) retreats to a remote cabin to work on this novel (which he knows is about werewolves, revenge, and not much else), a blackout interrupts what little productivity he has. His neighbor across the street, Fanny (Aya Cash), is also a horror writer, albeit a much more successful one: not only has she published a popular book, but she has plenty of more irons stoking in the fire. She visits just to see if his power has been affected too but quickly decides to stay over, and the two begin to regale each other with the stories they’re working on, acting them out as a sort of pantomime theater right there in the living room.
Scare Me also captures the purity of storytelling by harnessing the same energy as an anthology film. While Fred and Fanny’s competitive banter doesn’t segue to visualizations of their respective tales, the bite-sized assortment on display provides a similar effect. We hear Fred’s story about a werewolf laying siege to a house, where a little boy watches his parents get ripped to shreds. Fanny volleys back with an even more demented tale about a girl’s bleak childhood encounter with her strange uncle and his dog. A pizza delivery man (Chris Redd) sticks around and gets in on the act, injecting the night with more drug-fuelled revelry as he helps to hatch the story of an American Idol contestant who sells her soul to Satan. As the trio’s boundless energy brings the stories to life, the audience is swept up in the mania, perhaps reminding them of the days when you could pull all-nighters and bullshit around with your friends, swapping stories no matter how outlandish or nonsensical they might be.
What’s especially impressive is how Ruben and company create this energy through the sheer power of performance. Scare Me is a minimalist production, perched at the halfway point between cinema and the stage. Sparse audio and visual embellishments accent the stories as the trio delivers them, but it’s the performers’ charismatic screen presence and zest that makes them sing. Captivating storytelling often thrives on presentation, and Scare Me sometimes feels like a writers’ workshop playing out in real time as the various characters bounce ideas and commentary off of each other. You could easily imagine this troupe of actors doing a travelling roadshow with this material: I know I would certainly pay money to spend an evening watching Ruben, Cash, and Redd spin yarns on stage.
Cash is the most dominant presence, eager to provide sarcastic barbs and biting ripostes as Fred drags out his cliched werewolf story. She has a detached, wry writ that purposely borders on condescension, effectively stoking the fires of resentment brewing within Fred. Fred’s a more slippery character: a self-proclaimed tortured artist who really hasn’t accomplished much yet somehow expects the world to recognize his genius. A darkness lurks beneath his easy-going demeanor that’s pulled to the surface when Fanny happens to see some alarming texts from his ex-girlfriend, giving the film an unexpected edginess.
The playful sense of competition between these two grows into something a little more fierce as the script effortlessly weaves through contrasting tones. Scare Me is a lot of fun until it suddenly isn’t: eventually the simmering resentment boils, forcing a tense confrontation when hidden motives also surface. Ruben takes the story in an unexpectedly intense direction but somehow sticks the landing with a playful denouement. Scare Me is ultimately quite funny but also a little sad, and maybe even a little poignant. At one point, Fred admits that this was just what he needed—an evening to remember the simple pleasures of shooting the shit and telling scary stories.
And yet, he can’t let go of the agony, the resentment that sticks in his craw and won’t let him simply admit that Fanny is better at this than he is. He sees her as an interloper, or someone who’s stolen the life he thinks he deserves, allowing the film to veer off and explore the dangers of male privilege. The film’s title refers to her initial challenge: she simply wants Fred to show off his stuff and scare her. By the end of the film, he’s the one who has to reckon with his greatest fear: that this woman effortlessly does the thing that he can’t, a sobering realization that sets the stage for their final confrontation.
But it must be said that Fanny isn’t exactly a saint, either and that Fred is somewhat justified in his anger towards her. It turns out both of these writers have a shared proclivity for swiping ideas others share with them, unwittingly uniting the two in the shared misery of being assholes. In some ways, Scare Me feels like a cautionary tale about writers who let that agony twist them into joyless creatures who have wedged themselves so far up their own assholes that they can only dwell on the agony. It’s worth noting that the other two characters they encounter—the pizza delivery guy and an Uber driver (Rebecca Drysdale)—also love to swap stories but are content to go on with their lives. They’re the two happiest people in the story and are rewarded thusly, whereas Fred and Fanny seem like they deserve to wallow in their own writerly misery.
Is the message here that a writer’s agony is compounded by how much he or she allows it to consume them? As someone who often dwells on his own agony and shortcomings, I get that. There’s something heartening about Scare Me, a movie that reminds us that maybe writing should just be a communal goof, best enjoyed with drugs, pizza, and in the company of friends before we entertain ourselves with something else. Maybe it shouldn’t be everything, no matter how much we feel like it should be. Maybe sometimes, we just need to accept our limitations, tip our caps to others, and enjoy life. Otherwise, we might end up skewered on our own fire pokers.
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