'Scare Me': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Scare you? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

Director Josh Ruben stars with Aya Cash as two writers telling each other stories during a rural blackout.

Considerably more true to its premise than many viewers will expect, Josh Ruben's Scare Me puts two strangers together in a country cottage, kills the power and has them tell stories to each other. That's all, nearly — and much of the time, the stories aren't even trying to be frightening. It'd be an immediate bore if not for game performances by Aya Cash and Ruben himself; though neither plays a character you'd want to get stranded with in reality, their cheap-shot antagonism passes the time until Ruben finally decides something should happen.

Ruben's Fred makes ads for a living but fancies himself a writer/actor. Since everyone knows vacation houses turn do-nothings into artists, he has come to this cabin to write a screenplay about werewolves and revenge. But damn his luck: The house across the street is occupied by a bona fide best-selling author, whose success intimidates him. Creator of what many have called the best horror novel ever, Fanny (Cash, of You're the Worst) actually seems to have plenty of ideas to work on during her one-woman writer's retreat.

Following Fred back to his cabin after the two meet, the film offers a couple of fakeouts promising thrills that will never come: It shows us a kitchen block full of knives that will never plunge into a torso; it watches Fred open the door to a basement where nothing scary will ever occur. (If any movie character ever had the right to ignore viewers' "don't go down there, idiot!" commands, it's a writer trying to postpone the act of writing.)

Immediately after the power goes out in the neighborhood, Fanny shows up, thinking the two should keep each other company. She's awfully critical of this stranger's lack of resourcefulness; she goads him into doing what she wants, then complains that his efforts are lame. (Fred is indeed dull and self-pitying, but at least he's not arrogant, and nobody asked Fanny to invade his living room.)

She decides they should have an old-fashioned story swap. "You scare me, I'll scare you," she commands, and the film plays along: Ruben contributes sound effects suggested by the stories that follow, casts appropriate shadows on the wall and occasionally even has characters seeing things — a werewolf's claw, a vampire's pointy teeth — that are being described.

Many viewers will immediately assume something supernatural's going to happen; that stories will somehow come to life, making these two storytellers teammates in a fight to live until morning. But nothing like that is in store. And the ho-hum-ness of the stories — as Fanny is quick to note, Fred's are made up of cliches seen in a thousand horror flicks — quickly grows puzzling. If we're not going to be treated to actual monsters and mayhem, shouldn't the stories themselves be engrossing?

The film's dramatic high point, in fact, is the arrival of pizza. SNL's Chris Redd plays Carlo, a big fan of Fanny's who sticks around for a bit after making the delivery. He quashes the room's critical vibe for a time, and participates in some storytelling that, very briefly, enters the realm of weird fantasy. Then it's time for him to go back to work.

Ruben has plans for Fred and Fanny after this, but they're pretty anticlimactic. Questions about what's real and what's not don't go nearly as far as they might, and many viewers will be imagining twists better than the filmmaker winds up offering. One of our protagonists may wind up with material for a new story to write, once the power comes back on. Then again, whatever's already in the notebook is likely more scary.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Artists First, Irony Point, Last Rodeo Studios
Distributor: Shudder
Cast: Aya Cash, Josh Ruben, Chris Redd, Rebecca Drysdale
Director-screenwriter: Josh Ruben
Producers: Alex Bach, Daniel Powell, Josh Ruben
Executive producers: Philip Erdoes, David Kiger, Steve Stodghill, Brian Steinberg, Tucker Voorhees
Director of photography: Brendan H. Banks
Production designer: Lauren Burge
Costume designer: Sean Dermond
Editor: Patrick Lawrence
Composers: Chris Maxwell, Phil Hernandez

103 minutes