By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Isabel May and Dakota Baccelli
Written and directed by Jud Cremata
From FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III’s Shelly to Muffy St. John in APRIL FOOL’S DAY, horror cinema has a longstanding familiarity with (and affinity for) the prankster. Yet even by the standards of a genre accustomed to such gags precipitating real bloodbaths, LET’S SCARE JULIE takes the joke to some dark, disquieting places. Less viscera and fewer spear-gun shots to the eye, sure, but more surreal weirdness, tension-building and creeping dread.
The setup is fairly simple: Taylor (Isabel May) invites a gaggle of her teenage besties over to her suburban home one night. Out of what appears to be sheer boredom and a desire to “go viral”–do we do anything for any other reason these days?–they decide to shoot cell-phone videos of themselves repeatedly attempting to freak out Taylor’s orphaned cousin Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), who only recently moved in with her. You can almost hear the jump-cut editor praising Beelzebub for answered prayers.
Now, under ordinary circumstances this type of behavior would seem…well, ordinary. But there are complicating factors here that make the game seem less advisable. For one, Emma and her younger sister Lilly (Dakota Baccelli), having just lost a parent and finding themselves unmoored in a completely new living space, probably don’t need the stress. For another, Taylor’s unstable dad is an animal-skinning and tanning enthusiast passed out on the couch at the bottom of the stairs with a loaded gun–and he doesn’t want visitors. Taylor is not overly concerned about the latter and unsympathetic to the former. When Emma emotionally tells her cousin she’s overwhelmed by the antics, Taylor replies, “Hey, you live with us now, OK? This is how it’s going to be. My friends coming and going. If you want to belong you just have to go along with stuff.”
As one might presume, there will soon be more “stuff” to “go along with” than any of the characters have bargained for–and for us, the audience, the tension builds as we await the turn from play to trauma that is so clearly coming. The shift in tone and stakes arrives when the girls decide to refocus their attention on a mysterious new neighbor across the street. (Julie, natch.) Alas, this proves to be no spook-and-dash affair. The girls are soon split up, mysterious texts and calls bounce back and forth between cell phones, sinister figures emerge and, essentially, all hell breaks loose. LET’S SCARE JULIE transforms at this point from a meditation on bullying, peer pressure and the damage teenage alienation and vulnerability–self-inflicted or otherwise–can leave in its wake to something that feels a bit more INSIDIOUS-esque.
To writer/director Jud Cremata’s credit, this switchup feels more like a step deeper into the shadows than a tonal leap too far. It’s as if the wages of pranks have come home to roost in a larger, more metaphorical way than is typically the case. But Cremata also maintains narrative equilibrium, perhaps paradoxically, via his choice to shoot the story in one continuous 80-minute-plus take. If you’ve heard anything about LET’S SCARE JULIE, it’s probably this. Which is a shame, really, because the film does not feel gimmicky at all and, along with the preternaturally naturalistic performances of an on-point cast–seriously, Johnson and May feel like major stars in the wings, and Brooke Sorenson, Jessica Sarah Flaum and Odessa A’Zion all deserve kudos as well–the camerawork only serves to further bolster the authenticity already at play. (This is Cremata’s debut feature, though he’s directed episodes of THE JEFF CORWIN EXPERIENCE, SPRING WATCH USA and other doc-centered television shows, which evidently provided him the grounding to pull off something like this successfully.)
That said, LET’S SCARE JULIE is a little busy and confusing at points. Sometimes that serves the story, at others…not so much. It probably could have used one or two fewer red herrings. These, however, are minor quibbles considering how charismatic and unsettling the film is at its best, as well as how fully you’ll likely find yourself investing in the characters. Many of us have at one time or another been Julie–an innocent target. Most of us have been Emma–a conscientious yet complicit bystander. And far more of us have been Taylor and her friends than we’d like to admit–a genuinely good-natured, well-intentioned human being who can’t seem to fathom how brutally a joke/action from inside the in-crowd can reverberate when unleashed out into the world beyond. LET’S SCARE JULIE makes a serious attempt to grapple with these weirdly endemic dynamics and the magnified fates that follow.