Shot entirely in one take, Let’s Scare Julie is a spooky but narratively hollow experiment
In 2012, Konami put out a video game called P.T. (short for “Playable Trailer”) which, for many, remains a pinnacle achievement in horror video games. This is somewhat surprising for not just being a relatively short teaser for another game (that ultimately never came out), but also for an exceptionally repetitive play experience. The loop of the game involves the player in first person walking through the same hallway again and again and again, small changes and atmospheric moments ratcheting up the tension throughout. The game doesn’t really explain itself, and has mostly been solved through people poking at it relentlessly to discover its secrets. But ultimately it is an experience that is 90% atmosphere and small adjustments, playing with your expectation of something to happen when it mostly… doesn’t.
I mention all of this because throughout watching Let’s Scare Julie, I was most reminded of the experience of playing P.T. The film from writer/director Jud Cremata primarily hinges on its technical achievement: it was shot in a single take, from a single camera. It is not technically a one-shot film, as there are occasional cuts to tighten up certain dramatic moments, but for the most part it is a horror film that unfolds in real time on a real location. The technical trick effectively isolates the action to a relatively small space, one house for the majority of the film, and involves traveling around that space again and again and again, raising tension through subtle adjustments to the atmosphere.
A big difference between P.T. and Let’s Scare Julie is isolation; P.T. is a singular experience, as you are alone in a house with no one else (or so it seems); Let’s Scare Julie feature an ensemble of almost exclusively female teenaged actors who blend together elements of cinema veritas with macabre stage acting. They spend long sections talking over each other, dialogue and exposition somewhat lost in the Safdie-style rattling about as they banter with each other. Then everything slows down so one of the girls can deliver intimate dialogue regarding ghost stories or past trauma. It sways between these two tones with some creakiness, but the energy mostly stays at a steady acceleration throughout.
The plot of the film is, unfortunately, less consequential than those experiments with tone and form. Emma (played by Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) has recently started living with her cousin Taylor (Isabel May) after the tragic death of Emma’s father. When Taylor’s friends all crash at her house one night, they share pranks and ghost stories until they discover that a new family has moved into the house across the street. They determine that a girl their age, the titular Julie, is likely in the house alone and decide to go prank her, leaving Emma back at home to watch over her younger sister. But when not all the girls come back, it becomes clear that something with the prank has gone horribly wrong.
The narrative is fairly simple, especially stripped down to its most basic elements. And the setting and process doesn’t allow for especially elaborate set pieces. That is not what Cremata is interested in exploring, but rather the universal, primal fear that comes from wandering in unfamiliar dark spaces. Of the sudden creaking and groaning of homes when you are trying to remain absolutely silent. And he captures that universal, scared-of-the-dark experience well. A synth throwback score is used with care, allowed to fall away when it would be more distracting than helpful.
The core cast of young actresses all play their roles well, clearly drawing from real life experiences to create a grounded reality, even as the plot goes into the horrific elements in the final half-hour. Johnson is especially strong in the lead role, which is good as she is the only actor who appears throughout the duration. Odessa Adlon as the wise-cracking, fearless Madison is also a stand-out, as she rotates through practiced obnoxious character voicings into more genuine moments of allowing her guard to fall. Outside the core cast of girls there isn’t much, the most prominent other actor being Blake Robbins as Uncle Vince who gives an essentially one-scene performance that definitely shows the one-take, live theatre roots that a production like this has in its DNA. It’s broad and passionate, with small space for more subtle expression.
That is ultimately what makes Let’s Scare Julie feel unique: its pride and competence in executing a one-shot, live production that requires the actors to be in proper places at the right moment for the mechanism to work. If you don’t notice the trick, it’s almost as if you are missing the function of the filmmaking. And it more or less works as a technical achievement that invites the viewer to be in that world, the hustling that it took for each space to be prepared at the proper time for the next shot behind the scenes. But so much focus and attention was put into that aspect of the production that the ultimate story it tells using that technique is a bit hollow, scattering small moments of story and a final “moral” at the end but without ever giving a real meaty bit of storytelling to play out alongside the experiment. As an experience creeping around a haunted house, it ultimately succeeds. But by the metric of being an especially captivating piece of cinema that requires much harder consideration, it falls short. But it seems perfectly fine being the technical showpiece; there is a reason that the first credit when the film cuts to black is the camera operator Phillip Mastrella. For however good the acting is, however underwhelming the narrative might be, the fact they executed a relatively ambitious task seems to be the primary goal. And to that end, Let’s Scare Julie impresses.
Let’s Scare Julie comes out on October 2nd on home video on demand services.