Venus Envy: Ruben Mines Microaggressions in Uncomfortable Debut
The claustrophobic possibilities of ‘the cabin in the woods,’ not unlike ‘the old dark house,’ presents a familiar scenario and potential formula we’ve seen rehashed over and over again (especially considering there are films which, facetiously or not, bear those titles). But maybe not all avenues have been rightly explored, especially as presented in the directorial and screenwriting debut Scare Me by Josh Ruben, which is also an exercise in introducing trenchantly unlikeable characters with whom we eventually come to sympathize or empathize.
Two dazzling lead performances dance endlessly between alternating poles of smug and pathetic, victim and victimizer, to present what plays like a case study of heteronormative gender expectations and the deadliness of toxic masculinity backed into a corner.
Ruben casts himself as Fred, a typical aspiring actor/writer who has decided to throw himself into a wintry isolation to foster and develop an idea he has for a film about werewolves. Annoyed at the loquacious cab driver Bettina (Rebecca Drysdale), who engages in the same kind of vocal posturing he is, Fred settles down into his new environment by going on a run. He meets Fanny (Aya Cash), rubbing her knee alongside the road. He offers his assistance, which she more or less rebukes and further rejects his friendly, if typical advances. “I didn’t ask for your name,” she bluntly remarks when he introduces himself. As they walk back to the clutch of cabins, she reveals she’s a highly successful published author, her first horror novel Venus hailed by all the notable culture critics as the best horror novel ever written. They part ways until later the same evening, there’s a power outage and Fanny comes knocking. She suggests they tell each other horror stories to keep themselves occupied. Fred goes first and it becomes clear he’s not really adept at his professed craft, especially when Fanny tells her own first off-the-cuff yarn, imbued with some formidable performing artistry. As she taunts and teases, eventually they both let their mutual guards down and collaborate on their own narrative, and even while she runs circles around his abilities, they’re having a bit of fun. But when Carlo (Josh Redd), the pizza delivery man shows up and recognizes Fanny, she invites him to participate in their games. And it turns out, Carlo is a little better at this game than Fred as well. Eventually, Fred feels left out of the fun a bit too long. And his last story, well, it leans a bit too heavily into the underlying resentment he’s been fostering all night.
The opening sequences of Scare Me are unfortunately quite off-putting considering neither Fred nor Fanny are innately likeable. As we settle into their dialogue, however, they start to take shape as realistic humans. It’s clear Fanny’s behavior, as a woman celebrated in a male-dominated industry, particularly for genre writers, is a mixture of having to enforce an aura of steely resilience mixed with the swagger she’s acquired thanks to her professional success (not to mention the play on names, with both ‘fanny’ a cutesy euphemism which suggests women’s bodies as objects and her novel Venus, of course, the goddess of love and now a cultural adage about the differences between men vs. women thanks to the relationship counselor John Gray’s 1992 publication). Slowly, the tables turn, and our sympathies lean towards Fanny, reaching a bright equilibrium when they let down their guard and work together on an entertaining narrative about a troll living in the air ducts of an edible arrangements shop who asks the new shopgirl to murder her supervisor.
Chris Redd of “Saturday Night Live” might tip the scenario into over-the-top excess as we embark on yet another story (although a Faustian tale about an “American Idol” pop star named Beth is also fun, and yet another chance for Cash to show off some incredible range), but the alcohol and coke fueled night yields many meaningful statements about white male privilege and a victim narrative utilized to condone violence (we get some brief red flags about Fred and his last relationship, which sets this up nicely).
Some auditory cues assist in the innate magic of immersive storytelling, further assisted by a soundtrack from Elegant Too. Ruben has the intense animation of a Jim Carrey (and sometimes resembles 90s era Tim Daly), while Aya Cash (of “The Boys”) should become an immediate talent of interest with a performance which is at times reminiscent of Katherine Waterston while she sells Fanny like Dorothy Parker being devilish (and her namesake Fanny Brice also comes to mind).
At the end of the day, Scare Me showcases the dangerousness of self-defeat and brooding resentment, especially when it’s experienced by a heterosexual white man who’s never been forced to examine his behavior and inherent ideas about the world as potentially problematic. Similar to what Sebastian Silva did with a ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ and racism with Tyrel (2018), Ruben’s Scare Me is pleasantly surprising in its segue from discomfort to dolefulness.