Scare Me introduces my favorite new cinematic measuring stick: the Carlo Test. It can be applied to any movie, really. Just ask yourself: would this film benefit from Chris Redd showing up as an unhinged but earnest pizza man who just wants to do cocaine and spit puns until 2am? It’s no insult when I say that Scare Me meets the test – I’ve yet to think of a movie that wouldn’t.
Dropping on Shudder just in time for October, Josh Ruben’s Sundance debut is a meta-narrative about the power of scary stories. Following two writers who must turn to the ancient art of oral story-telling after a power outage kills their laptop-fueled writing retreats, Scare Me picks a gimmick and sticks with it, for better and for worse. Fred and Fanny (Ruben and a flauntingly fearless Aya Cash) take turns acting out tales of gloom and gore, while Ruben and his crew use mostly subtle editing and sound tricks to bring these made-up creatures from our nightmares to life.
In a story about stories, it’s ironic that the technical filmmaking is what makes Scare Me work. Patrick Lawrence’s editing manages to add tension without confusion. Cinematographer Brendan Banks uses lighting to enhance reality, putting these writers’ fantasies just within our grasp before snatching them away and bringing us back to the here and now. Perhaps most impressive is the sound design, a subtle medley of effects that effectively blurs the line between story and story-teller.
The stories themselves range from pedestrian to genuinely creepy, but for this reviewer, that was the point. A good storyteller can bring anything to life – whether it’s Aya Cash using inflection and body language to deliver a haunting tale of senicide gone wrong, or Josh Ruben relying on shadow manipulation, quick cuts to reverse shots, and an oozing sound design to invoke terror with an otherwise mostly predictable werewolf revenge story.
But even with some of the witty repartee and the undeniable chemistry between Cash and Ruben, watching what amounts to a series of committed monologues can lose its luster after a bit. Scare Me occasionally feints at elbowing its way out of the box it builds for itself early on, but inevitably finds itself trapped in a web of words and little more.
That is, until Carlo. I won’t spoil anything more, but Chris Redd’s introduction is one of the most needed and most blood-pumping entrances – and extended guest parts – in a film this year. He can’t fully save the film from what plays as an “I guess this works fine” ending, but for the roughly 20 minutes he’s on-screen, Scare Me transforms from a commentary on and exercise in storytelling to a rib-cracking horror-comedy. In particular, his work with Cash reaffirms what anyone paying attention already knew: these are two major comedic talents. Add in the “triple threat” of Ruben, and I'll be listening closely to whatever story each member of the Scare Me trio chooses to tell next.