“Scare Me,” written and directed by first-time filmmaker Josh Ruben, is a spook show stripped to the basics. A boy and a girl, Fred and Fanny (Ruben and Aya Cash of “You’re the Worst”), hole up in a snowbound cabin swapping scary tales by the fireplace. He postures as a horror novelist, director, screenwriter and actor (though he’s really a frustrated marketer). She really is a horror novelist, the hip new darling author of a zombie best-seller, which Fred finds as intimidating as a dark basement. “No judgies!” promises Fanny, goading him into going first. Yeah, right.
In Ruben’s playful and slight paean to the creative process, the tension in the air derives from more than its improvised tales of werewolves, trolls and satanic pop stars. The man is simply outmatched. Fanny questions his half-baked backstories (How did the werewolf pick his prey?), his word choice (“Lurk”? Why not “lumber”?) and even his character names (Devin?! What kind of a troll name is that?). Her interruptions are irritating. But they’re also, well, correct. And as the vibratingly talented Fanny massacres Fred’s confidence — and the two inhale booze, pot and cocaine — he resolves to turn his torture into her nightmare.
This is storytelling just one step beyond the campfire. Ruben and cinematographer Brendan H. Banks allow themselves a few flourishes. When Fred describes a tree, he wriggles his fingers and casts the shadow of a haunted old oak. Later, Fanny plays a possessed teen singer, and the cluttered cabin recedes into the blackness of a single stage spotlight. Ruben’s asking the audience to immerse itself in its imagination, but the script can’t resist squeezing in meta jokes that get giggles but break the spell, like dramatic thunderclaps on cue. “This isn’t a movie,” says Fanny, seemingly for no other reason than to remind the audience that yes, it very much is. “If this was a movie, I’d dolly in real slow right about now.” The camera obeys.
Ruben has forged himself an actors’ showcase. He and Cash are marvelous mimics. Fred does a killer Jack Nicholson; Fanny materializes a lazy-eyed Russian grandfather who forces a 5-year-old girl to feed him soup — to stay in character, she smears peanut butter across her chin. Banks’ camera stays with the performers as they tell their tales, keeping close to their faces as they toggle between villain and victim. With just a twist of their mouth, they’re both the bloodthirsty monster and the would-be feast begging to live. Only sound designer John Moros is having as much fun as the actors at filling in the illusions. The film doesn’t need more people, but there are two fun cameos anyway from “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Redd as a pizza deliveryman named Carlo and Rebecca Drysdale (a former writer and producer for “Key & Peele”) as a taxi driver who fancies herself a future Hollywood sensation, too, if she could just get her screenplay idea to “James Cam-ron … of the ‘Titanic’ movies.”
“Scare Me” would work even better onstage. On screen, it feels like an experiment in minimalism. The film is heavy-handed only in Fred’s fear of emasculation and Fanny’s digs at “desperate white dudes,” troweled on for socially relevant heft. At one point, Carlo points and shrieks, “You are emasculated! Look at you! You’re an emasculated man!” Till then, all the ghouls have been make-believe. The film’s real bogeyman is wounded macho pride.