For more (that's more positive) about Scare Me, check out Rob & Carrie's interview with writer-director-star Josh Ruben!

It is inordinately easy to root for Scare Me (one of two films by that title with extremely similar loglines released in 2020; this is the one picked up by the streaming service Shudder as an exclusive). The feature debut writer-director Josh Ruben, formerly of CollegeHumor, is an extremely good-faith attempt to make something out of nothing, relying on basically no resources other than a small handful of game actors and a library of sound effects to craft a character study, socially aware message movie, and theory of narratology all in one. I would say that I have my doubts whether this works out, except that's being a bit too diplomatic: in fact, I have no doubt at all that Scare Me is a failed experiment, demonstrating inadvertently one of its own themes, that just because you want to write something very successful and complex doesn't mean that you have.

The hook, at any rate, is the most exquisitely streamlined thing. Fred (Ruben himself) wants very badly to write a horror story, and he has a pretty loose notion involving a young man taking revenge on the werewolf who killed his family. He's rented a cabin in the woods to lock himself away from the world, and just write for a whole uninterrupted weekend. And it just so happens that another horror writer has had the same idea, and rented the next cabin over: only Fanny (Aya Cash) is no strive, but a published author of a novel that has been greeted with rapturous reviews. The first night they're in their mutual isolation, the power for the whole area goes out, and Fanny swings by to suggest a sort of friendly writers' contest: why don't the two of them swap scary stories all night? Fred, who very obviously is both jealous of and cowed by Fanny's success, agrees with limited enthusiasm, and as the night progresses, the idea is that he has to confront his insecurity at being in the presence of a woman much better at storytelling than he is.

That's the idea. The reality, and this is big fatal flaw that would kill Scare Me even if it did not one other thing wrong, is that from all the evidence we get, Fanny is an awful writer and storyteller. To be clear, Fred is also an awful writer and storyteller; his ideas are ridiculous and stupid, whereas hers are merely trite and boring. So I guess, in a sense, she is better than him, but if the film is going to build its entire moral worldview on the idea that insecure men are terrified of successful and talented women, it's pretty important for that woman to have visible talent, and for the success to seem earned and not like the result of critics who mindlessly wave through any piece of media, no matter how shitty and artless, that repeats the right social justice slogans.*

Of course, getting this part wrong is basically a twofer. Not only does Scare Me fuck up its theme by failing to demonstrate that Fanny is meaningfully more talented than Fred, just more disciplined at cranking out shitty writing, it also means that we're spending 104 minutes watching two people in a dark room telling each other wildly unengaging stories. Let us linger on that for a moment. 104 minutes would be a long running time for a movie that is 90% made up of a two-hander in a single location if the stories they were telling each other were wonderful, and when those stories are this grating, that running time ends up feeling like pure torment. Ruben does his best to keep things lively by throwing in some lighting tricks and sound effects that bring the characters' stories to life in the absence of actually visualising what we see, and to be fair, the sound effects work is very much the strongest part of the whole movie. It makes the film feel like a really high-energy radio play that has been illustrated with deeply unexceptional images

All of the above is running in parallel with something I haven't touched on at all, which is that Scare Me is a comedy. Not even a horror-comedy; just a straight-up comedy, about two people telling each other scary stories. This goes at least some of the way to explaining why all of Josh's story ideas, at least, are so insistently dreadful: they're meant to be silly, since we're meant to laugh at them, and at the enthusiasm with he he acts them out, and at the no-nonsense way that Fanny takes them all seriously enough to bounce questions at Josh, trying to help him refine them into something at least not egregiously bad (literally every one of her questions and suggestions is a different way of saying "more world-building and backstory, please", never about narrative structure or prose style; we've already established that Scare Me doesn't actually know what good storytelling looks like, and I think this is a pretty clear example of why). This mostly translates into both Ruben and Cash doing lots of different voices and rubber-limbed body language as they act out different characters, and this is where we finally, at last, land on what Scare Me is really doing: it's not about toxic masculinity and it's not about horror storytelling, it's about improv games. Though there doesn't seem to be any indication that the film was actually improvised.

Still, that's what watching it is all about: the two lead actors - later joined for a couple of scenes by Chris Redd (the fourth and by far the best member of the cast, Rebecca Drysdale, appears in the first and last scenes, and is approaching this as a character actor, not an improv comedian, which is likely why she gets all the funniest lines) - responding to each other's prompts by flinging themselves into on-the-fly character creation without any trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Cash, at least, is pretty great at this; when she does the voices, they're pretty funny. I'm much less convinced by Ruben, who doesn't have any obvious instinct for knowing when to hold back, so he always ends up mugging.

And either way, this is only as good as the humor itself, which is intensely and extremely not my thing: the discovery that this was made by a CollegeHumor veteran was revelatory, and not because it explained where Ruben found his wit and cleverness. The main thrust of the jokes here tends to be "if it's louder, it's funnier", and "if it's faster, it's funnier", with a side dish of "the funniest thing is when the characters catch themselves doing something foolish and pause their story to say, 'wow, that was dumb of me'." If that's your thing, it's your thing, and given that I gather Cash has quite a substantial following from her TV work, I think this showcase for her comic talents ought to make a lot of viewers very happy. For me, the whole film felt like be trapped in a locked room with two people I despised intently - he's a slimy, resentful halfwit; she's an arrogant bully! - who are both convinced that they are literally the funniest people alive. It ends up making for an exceptionally tedious sit, one that entirely fails to make good by the interesting possibilities of its clever scenario.

*Pieces of media such as Scare Me, which presently enjoys a damnably unjustified 82% on Rotten Tomatoes.