As beloved as some horror anthologies are, it’s hard to make one without raising the specter of their inherent unevenness. Has there ever been a review of an anthology film that didn’t mention that quality? The new Shudder movie Scare Me finds a strange but enticing solution by having its two main characters tell an anthology’s worth of horror stories themselves, without other actors getting between them and the audience. Fanny (Aya Cash) and Fred (Josh Ruben) may look like framing devices as they sit in a woodsy cabin and weave tales of werewolves, trolls, and elderly creeps; they even bust out dueling Crypt Keeper impressions. But the movie never cuts away to other performers acting out these stories in “real” environments. Most of the action stays within the cabin, augmented only by sound effects and occasional lighting shifts that blur the line between performers and what’s happening in their mind’s eye.
That doesn’t necessarily put the two storytellers on equal footing. As it happens, there’s a major disparity between Fred, a frustrated advertising worker still hoping to write a great screenplay or novel or something (he’s not focused enough to say for sure), and Fanny, whose most recent horror novel has become a critically acclaimed bestseller. (Sadly, The A.V. Club is not among the publications name-checked as calling it a classic of the genre.) They’ve both rented cabins for a weekend of solitary writing, but only Fanny seems to really understand what that entails. Fred, whose point of view the movie follows most of the time, futzes around with Google and a self-amusing Jack Nicholson impression for a full day before the power goes out, essentially putting his near-blank word-processing document out of its misery.
Improbably but amusingly, Fanny shows up at Fred’s cabin during the neighborhood power outage, and suggests that they swap scary stories to pass the time. Fred agrees, despite feeling intimidated both by Fanny’s success and her unsparing digs at his half-baked ideas. A substantial chunk of the movie really does consist of the writers taking turns improvising scary stories, with their single-person audience offering the occasional ideas, edits, or commentary. A sort-of writing exercise for the characters becomes an acting workout for Cash and Ruben, and if the elastic yet cutting Cash appears to outmatch her co-star in that department, there’s a meta-twist there: Ruben, playing a guy who fancies himself an actor/writer/director despite a lack of actual credits, is also the movie’s writer and director. He’s made a movie portraying himself as bad at pitching movies.
Are these contortions impressive enough to sustain a feature film? Maybe, although Scare Me really pushes it by insisting on a 104-minute running time. (If ever there were a movie that should have felt free to top off around 80 minutes, it’s a straight-to-Shudder feature about people talking in a room.) Ruben has fun composing different variations on proscenia allowing his actors to perform straight to camera, as well as with the requisite dialogue explaining camera moves: “If this were a movie, I’d dolly in real slow right about now,” Fanny says at one point, and the camera follows her suggestion. The movie also turns over a welcome wild card when it introduces SNL’s Chris Redd, delivering pizza and many of the biggest laughs as an unexpected third wheel.
Scare Me does have more on its mind than performing engagingly middling story-skits with movie-reference asides. While Fred claims to love traditionally macabre scary stuff, it’s clear early on that his deepest fears have more to do with his own mediocrity and entitlement. This makes Fanny, who dispenses with polite chitchat almost immediately in favor of correcting his conversational grammar, a living nightmare that he obviously hopes to somehow convert into something resembling a dream date of creative equals.
The fears that Fred can offer Fanny remain concealed for nearly half the running time, but by the time Ruben finally tightens up the tension between the two of them, it’s somehow both obvious and underdeveloped, mostly undone by slack pacing. The idea that movies can easily lose 10 or 15 minutes of running time to curry favor with impatient audiences is often patently absurd, yet nearly every single scene in Scare Me feels some degree of overlong. Sometimes that’s part of the fun, sitting in the room with the characters and wondering if the movie is really going to flesh out Fred’s vague “werewolf revenge” idea in real time. Just as often, it makes the movie itself feel like a single anthology episode overstaying its welcome. Maybe that’s part of the dark joke on Fred’s uncreative stasis. It’s also not a joke that demands retelling.