‘Scare Me’: Film Review

Men are from Mars and women are from the best-seller list in these competitive campfire tales by filmmaker Josh Ruben and co-star Aya Cash.

Josh Ruben

Aya Cash, Josh Ruben, Chris Redd, Rebecca Drysdale.

Running Time: 104 MIN.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

'Scare Me': Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 30, 2020. Running Time: 104 MIN.


A Shudder presentation of an Irony Point, Last Rodeo Studios production. Producers: Alex Bach, Daniel Powell, Josh Ruben. Co-producers: Eamon Downey, Brendan H. Banks. Executive producers: Philip Erdoes, David Kiger, Steve Stodghill, Brian Steinberg, Tucker Voorhees. Co-executive producer:s Mike Bulger, Donny Dykowsky, Christine Nangle.


Director, screenwriter: Josh Ruben. Camera (color): Brendan H. Banks. Editor: Patrick Lawrence. Music: Chris Maxwell, Phil Hernandez.


Aya Cash, Josh Ruben, Chris Redd, Rebecca Drysdale.

More Film

  • 'Charlatan' Review: Agnieszka Holland Shows Faith

    'Charlatan': Film Review

    At several points in “Charlatan,” the camera looks glossily on as our protagonist holds small bottles of amber liquid to the light, academically scrutinizing their contents as they beam a light golden glow onto his features: an effect both ennobling and almost romantic. The man is Jan Mikolášek, a famous Czech herbalist and healer with [...]

  • Toho Cinemas at Tokyo Midtown Hibiya

    Japanese Cinemas To Refund Tickets in Virus Response

    In response to the coronavirus crisis, the Japanese film industry has begun to delay releases, close theaters and refund ticket purchases. The releases of the new “Doraemon” and “Jimaro” feature animations targeted at kids out of school for the spring break, have been delayed. The former was scheduled to open March 6, the latter on [...]

  • Blood on Her Name

    Film Review: ‘Blood on Her Name’

    In the opening moments of “Blood on Her Name,” an arrestingly twisty and suspenseful Southern noir thriller in the tradition of “One False Move,” we’re introduced to Leigh, the working-class protagonist played by Bethany Anne Lind, with a jarring close-up that is at once explicit and ambiguous. Her face is battered, her breathing is labored, [...]

  • Liev Schreiber Broadway

    Film News Roundup: Liev Schreiber Joins Will Smith's Tennis Drama 'King Richard'

    In today’s film news roundup, Liev Schreiber and retired pro footballer Vernon Davis score roles, Jason Blum will speak at his alma mater, Irish drama “Rialto” finds a U.S. distributor and “1917” hits a box office milestone. CASTINGS Liev Schreiber will portray tennis coach Paul Cohen in Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” opposite Will Smith. Popular [...]

  • AMC theater

    AMC Entertainment Reports Mixed Fourth-Quarter Results

    AMC Entertainment has reported mixed fourth-quarter results, which saw revenues rise 2.4% to $1.45 billion, despite a 4.4% drop in U.S. attendance to 62.3 million. The exhibitor, owned by Dalian Wanda Group, announced a fourth-quarter loss of $13.5 million, compared to a year-earlier profit of $170.6 million, due to $84.3 million of expense related to [...]

  • 'Straight Up' Review: James Sweeney's Gay

    'Straight Up': Film Review

    There’s a tradition in movies, as vital as a hypnotic action scene or a swooning love scene, of dialogue so witty and nimble and rapid-fire that it comes at you like something out of a stylized dream. I first encountered that brand of high-velocity verbal jousting in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and later on in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content