Fred (Josh Ruben) is an aspiring writer. And while he initially arrived to a secluded mountain cabin to write a book about werewolves, his ambitions far outweigh his talents. Instead, he can’t get any further than two lines: “Werewolves have guns… get revenge?” But what Fred does have is the boundless confidence of any white man, and that’s gotten them a long way over the centuries. That is, until they meet their match. And in Ruben’s “Scare Me”—a dark horror comedy that deconstructs the genre’s storytelling to mostly successful results—Fred does come under fire from someone far superior than him
Fred first meets Fanny (Aya Cash) jogging. Fanny is a best-selling author of the genre novel Venus, and Fred desperately wants her fame, while showing some attraction to her too. But the terse Fanny remains reserved around the struggling writer. It’s not until a storm causes a power outage that she seeks out Fred, coming over to play a game. One that asks each writer to conjure a scary story that’ll frightened the other.
Not much of a creative person, even though he bills himself as a writer; actor; and director; Fred struggles to keep up with Fanny during their contest. In fact, she often feeds him lines and ideas so he can continue telling his story. She also calls out his cliche or borrowed twists, like him pilfering “Jaws.” In these exchanges, Fanny treats Fred as though he’s lesser. A wannabe. And to a point, he is. However, their contention isn’t solely based on askew dynamics. Instead, both characters are newly vernacularized archetypes: She’s the intelligent and talented woman charitably propping up the average talentless white male. A tale as old as time, but only gaining notice by men recently. The dialogue between Fanny and Fred is often sharp and espouses a game of verbal table tennis while heightening the toxic content Fred feels towards Fanny’s success.
And in this game of verbal table tennis, Cash’s Fanny dominates. In fact, the actress is a full blown ready made star. Often she contorts her face to either compliment her deadpan wry humor or to craft the unique personas she takes on in the ensuing stories. Her physical acting: from spasms, full-body outbursts, to leaps out of dark corners—often keeps the dark comedy buzzing. And while Ruben typically joins in, to great results, making spot-on impressions of the Crypt Keeper and Smigel, Cash is often killing two birds with one stone—landing both hilarious blows and deeply shielded character development. That is, Cash is both second banana and straight man—showing a strong but freeing trust in her director to stroll down any off-beat avenue.
Nevertheless, with each passing minute the punchlines in “Scare Me” begin to land with less and less impact. Ruben is confronted with two choices: add another character or create an actual monster. He chooses the former when the pizza guy Carlo (Chris Redd, who hews closely to his energetic SNL persona) arrives with some slices. And for a moment, the inclusion of Redd sparks new life in the dark comedy. Especially during a sequence when the three create an imaginary American Idol singing competition, which briefly morphs “Scare Me” into a musical. But even that excitement fades into the shadows of overcompensation and absurdity. In fact, the horror comedy’s final act, a chase, is so outlandish and manic that as a fleeing soon-to-be murder victim, you’d rather declare yourself dead than run with it.
That may be too harsh for a relatively harmless film. But Ruben pursues the same line of questioning over and over again, analyzing the dynamics between an average man in the face of a significantly better woman. Rather than totally lampooning his average white male protagonist, Ruben insists upon a middle ground between toxic villain and hapless oaf. While “Scare Me” doesn’t completely succeed as an homage or satire of the pained white male horror writer, Ruben doesn’t fail either. “Scare Me” wins, by the screech of its teeth. [B-]