Here's how to do a Crypt-Keeper impression: "Regardless of how high you get your voice," says 37-year-old actor/director Josh Ruben, "tilt your head like a bobble-head. Do the highest voice you can and move your head back and forth."
It's in Ruben's newest movie Scare Me, the must-watch horror comedy of the year streaming now on Shudder, that he and co-star Aya Cash cackle like the skeletal host of the cult Tales from the Crypt anthology series. Scare Me is in its own way an homage to the anthology horror genre, with an ingenious low-budget approach and scathing commentary on the insecurities of men.
"It’s an anthology horror without leaving the campfire," Ruben tells Inverse. "Just by nature of not having the resources to go places, we ended up with a film that hopefully upends expectations, that is a sound designer’s movie, that is a composer’s movie, that brings those [audio] elements than spending money on the expensive stuff."
In Scare Me, Ruben directs and stars as Fred, an aspiring horror writer on a weekend mission to finish his first book. When his remote cabin loses power, neighbor Fanny (Aya Cash, currently Stormfront on The Boys), a successful novelist with critical acclaim, crashes his cabin for company. The two challenge each other to tell the scariest story they can think of in an escalating clash of one-upmanship that turns into something else.
Without the budget to shoot like a typical horror anthology, with more actors and different locations, Ruben relied on his sound team, including Ian Stynes and John Moros, to transport audiences elsewhere; to a creepy grandpa's bedroom, to an Edible Arrangements, to a reality TV talent show, all using sound and sound only.
"Sound helps you see things," Ruben says. He points out the "funny trope" of a crisp ember burn that is emphasized when a character smokes cigarettes onscreen. "That's not a sound that happens when you smoke. But there's nuances that add to the visual that help you see better." Ruben cites horror directors Yorgos Lanthimos and James Wan as "a big influence," whose films feature "long, odd takes" that "can feel quite creepy with the right sound."
"It's a fascinating playground," he says, "I knew each story had to sound its own way."
But louder than the movie's sound design is its hyper-specific commentary on insecure male creatives. Ruben makes clear he didn't envision Scare Me as a #MeToo movie, but "it is a very real side of toxic masculinity," he says.
In Scare Me, Ruben's Fred is threatened by Fanny, who seems to make achieving his very dreams look easy. "We are entitled as a gender," Ruben says. "We feel entitled to accolades and abilities and power. There's an icky, funny, interesting, and specific thing in men being overshadowed by a smarter, faster, sharper, more successful woman." A damning exchange late in the film is when Fanny tells Fred: "You're a man who thinks he's good but knows he'll never be great."
"I thought that was a fun, interesting critique in a way that's not giving a lesson," Aya Cash, who plays Fanny, tells Inverse. "The premise of this man, who is stunted by his own jealousy and inability to just create—he's sort of imagining all of the accolades before doing any of the work," Cash says. "He's threatened by a woman who's done the work. It's a fun way to deal with something we obviously see in the real world."
Scare Me's greatest trick is its sudden turn. After SNL's Chris Redd comes and goes as an enthusiastic pizza delivery guy, the film's darker tone creeps in.
Warning! Spoilers for Scare Me ahead.
In the end of Scare Me, Fanny and Fred's challenge goes dark when Fred "scares" Fanny by threatening and chasing her around the cabin. Suddenly, Scare Me is a real horror story, and you're not sure what Fred's intentions are. Also like a horror movie with a "final girl," Fanny survives when Fred falls down the stairs and is impaled by a fireplace poker.
In the movie, it's unknown if Fred was trying to actually kill Fanny, or if he was just goofing around as part of their game. Fanny will never know, as she flees into the night while Fred bleeds out.
"Despite this woman’s greatness, this broken man uses his voice and chest-pounding to shrink her to his level," Ruben explains. "There's something interesting there. She has this strong voice this whole movie. And then [Fred] raises his in anger, she shrinks. The first time you hear her trying to bring this dude down, it's not a comfortable place for Fanny. That's a real thing."
Ruben leaves the ending open for interpretation, but confirms in an original draft that Fred did indeed turn "psycho." A conversation with producer Alex Bach encouraged him to play in the gray area. "Because that is more true to life," he says. "A lot of women have been in a situation where, at the end of the night, you're cornered in a kitchen by a guy who is a little drunk and you don't know if they're just horsing around."
Ruben has his own interpretation. "No, he didn't intend to hurt her. He's just a broken asshole," Ruben says. "There's a lot of shitty dudes. We have all been shitty. We have masculinity. Mix that with alcohol, with feeling overshadowed, you end up in a dangerous situation. It's horsing around he blames her for. The first thing out of his mouth is, 'Look what you made me do.'"
Scare Me is streaming now on Shudder.