For many, scary movies are fun. Watching scary movies is fun. Boil that down further: Telling scary stories is fun, no matter the setting, as long as you’re in proper company. Shudder’s latest acquisition for streaming, Scare Me, toasts that dynamic via a contest of wills between two horror authors trying to out-terrify each other before the second-best possible stage for telling scary stories: a crackling fireplace. (The very best is a campfire, but beggars can’t be choosers.)
The authors are Fred (Josh Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash). Fanny is the best-selling writer behind the popular critical smash Venus, a zombie novel that, based on what little the audience hears about it, sounds like elevated horror nonsense (which is exactly the kind of thing that scored points on screens and shelves in the mid-2010s horror boom). Josh is a loser. He hasn’t written a damn thing or a thing worth a damn, and he’s secluded himself in a cabin at a Catskills resort to do Serious Work, which he doesn’t, because again, he’s a loser. Fanny’s staying in a nearby cabin, and when the power goes out across the area, she walks in on Fred and challenges him to scare her with his best shot.
Comedy ensues. Ruben’s background is comic: He’s written for and acted in Upright Citizen Brigade productions, as well as Collegehumor, and he even appeared in Cash’s best known credit before The Boys, You’re the Worst, back in 2019. As Scare Me’s writer and director, he weaves horror into comedy’s DNA, an easy task given that the two pair together as well as chocolate and peanut butter or beer and pizza. Maybe it’s just his way of tipping his hat to horror the best way he knows how, but whatever his inspiration, the film works: Doffing his hat at the way horror brings people together creatively and spiritually is a superb service for what’s arguably the most introspective genre of them all.
If it seems that horror picks itself apart more often than other storytelling modes, that’s in part because it’s simply more self-aware—fear is such a personal matter that horror is arguably sentient in ways its genre peers aren’t—and in part because horror by its very nature works best in front of an audience. Scare Me digs into that quality as Fred and Fanny labor tirelessly to make each other quake in their boots: Werewolves, creepy grandpa ghosts, and Satan himself figure into their accounts, and eventually so does Carlo (Chris Redd, the secret weapon of Lonely Island masterpiece Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), the pizza delivery guy, who shows up with a truly delicious-looking pie and geeks out so hard over meeting his favorite author (Fanny, in case that needs clarification) that she invites him to participate in the contest.
Ruben brings the horror to subtle life through sound design and restrained FX: Creaks and groans issue through the cabin as Fred and Fanny spin their tales, hands turn into werewolf’s claws, and voices plummet to demonic octaves, effectively evoking tone and mood while maintaining location. The effect makes the basic conceit’s light creepiness downright spooky as Scare Me rolls along. Something has to go wrong in this isolated spot, doesn’t it? Fred’s simmering jealousy and building animus over his own misfired career certainly seems like Chekhov’s gun, waiting on the wall, even as the film goes toward mostly hilarious places.
Once Redd’s Carlo leaves, the pace of Scare Me slows a tad more than ideal as Ruben takes the plot to its inevitable conclusion, but it’s still a joyful, satisfyingly eerie experience. There are reasons we enjoy the adrenaline blast horror movies give us. Scare Me, which should be essential viewing as the Halloween season dawns, understands those reasons well and celebrates them with enough laughs and gasps to leave viewers choking.
Director: Josh Ruben
Writer: Josh Ruben
Starring: Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, Chris Redd, Rebecca Drysdale
Release Date: October 1, 2020 (Shudder)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.