Writer/director Jud Cremata makes his grippingly tense and ambitiously inventive feature debut with Let's Scare Julie, a haunted horror-thriller about a teenage prank gone wrong shot in one, continuous take. Though the creative approach of shooting an 82-minute film without cuts or interruption spurs genuineness from its performances and creates sincere claustrophobia for the viewer, it amounts to little more than a dark evocation of anxiety. Let's Scare Julie is no doubt a new and thrilling ride with refreshingly real characters to invest in, but the payoff for those sitting on edge awaiting true terror never quite arrives. Fortunately it boasts an amazingly authentic look at teens and their late-night hijinks, and Cremata's direction doesn't fail to ignite nerves in an innovative way.
One night, Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson,) who recently moved in with her cousin Taylor (Isabel May) after her father's death, is awoken from a sound sleep when Taylor and her friends scare her as a prank. Taylor and her crew are a chaotic group of teenage girls, consumed by image as all teens are; constantly joking at each other's expense, and in search of the next victim to play a trick on. There's Madison (Odessa A'zion,) the wildest of the bunch, Jess (Brooke Sorenson,) perhaps the most self-obsessed, and Paige (Jessica Sarah Flaum,) who's mainly along for the ride.
Taylor, being Emma's cousin, shows a softer side and expresses more genuine care as she wants to include Emma and endear her friends to her. The girls struggle to remain quiet as they carry on in the hopes of not waking Taylor's father who's passed out drunk downstairs, per usual.
Looking to rile up the group and wreak new havoc, Taylor shares the story of her former neighbor across the street, who nobody ever saw save for one boy who disappeared hours after seeing the seemingly decaying old woman staring at him from her porch. A father and his daughter, Julie, have just moved into the house she inhabited for many years. Emma reveals she knows where the key to the house is, so the girls devise a plan to sneak into the home and scare Julie.
Emma and her little sister Lily (Dakota Baccelli) stay at Taylor's while the rest of the crew head to Julie's in glowing masks eager to terrify. However, after a tense wait only a couple of the girls make it back.
Let's Scare Julie has a major strength that lays in Cremata's bold directing decision, as the continuous one-take shot forces this talented young cast to improvise, synchronize fully with one another, and conjure what appears like genuine emotion; thus leading the crew to seem like a real group of teenage friends. The girls aren't standard teen-horror stock characters locked and loaded with generic lines that elicit easy laughs or drive a trite story forward. A lack of cuts would expose the absence of chemistry, however, Johnson, May, A'zion, Sorenson, and Flaum are visibly excellent playing off one another.
Equally freshing to the true-to-life alignment among characters is the fact that none of them are dumb. Too many horrors lose value by cramming in shallow, stupidly naive characters who cause terror to unfold through mental error or straight up stupidity. Let's Scare Julie shows teen-centered horror is possible even when heroes don't walk aloofly into a bloody crime scene or grow too horny for their own safety. Some of the girls may be reckless, but they're not one-note or simple. Madison, for example, is the most rash and unpredictable of the group; a pothead instigator who disregards others' well-being for the sake of jokes or a good time. Despite her thoughtlessness, she's sharp and charismatic, and she knows when a good time's over (she's the only one of the victims to call her mother amidst the madness, after all.) When your most seemingly malicious character has heart, you have a group of layered individuals.
Of course, none of the spookiness could occur without a careless decision. The girls plotting a prank on their poor new neighbor is as authentic as the girls themselves. Their deviant plan is the sort of search for a thrill we really seek out as teens. It's a rise that comes at another's expense, and one we may feel awful about yet still carry out in the interest of fitting in. Cremata touches on teenagers' instinctual need to be liked and among the group, and the pressure that pairs along with it. Whether you were the ringleader in questionable activity or the sweet soul who was afraid to look like a loser by saying no, you can see a piece of your younger self in one of these characters. While this morbid evening of pranking might come off as merely a thriller-vehicle, it offers audiences a bona fide look back at what being a teen felt like.
Cremata's directing doesn't just inspire great acting and an accurate view of late-night adolescent happenings, it elicits heart-pounding anxiety from the viewer. Let's Scare Julie takes place almost entirely in one home, where Emma's left a terrified mess wondering what evil ugliness is going on across the street. Therefore, we're uncomfortable wrecks along with her, stuck with imagining the horror and feeling every bit of what she's feeling. The majority of the film's run-time is notably tense, even before the darkness ensues, when our crew of gals are fooling around, refusing to stay quiet while Taylor's dad sleeps downstairs. Cremata implements a Safdie-brothers-like style of characters talking over one another at inappropriate times to stir up anxiousness from the start. That dreadful nervousness doesn't waver throughout, making for a remarkably nerve-wracking viewing.
The "horror taking place offscreen" technique only goes so far, though, and Let's Scare Julie suffers in not fully delivering on a prolonged, thoroughly tense build. Cremata deserves an immense amount of credit for crafting an original thriller. His Hitchcock Rope-inspired one-shot method is cause for real thrill, but said thrill never rises above nervousness. Cremata has stated "slashers don't scare me," which is an understandable and widely shared sentiment. What we don't see is often the most terrifying aspect of a great horror film. However, none of the intensity reaches "scary" levels.
Perhaps my choosing to watch Let's Scare Julie on a sunny Sunday afternoon didn't give the film its moody justice. It's surely more for a dark night, when the outside world's goings are a creepy mystery that can only be imagined in the most cynical and paranoid parts of our brain. Regardless, I wasn't left feeling anything more palpable than on edge. With such relentless agitation throughout, Let's Scare Julie could have worked better with an outright terrifying payoff. It doesn't need gore nor anything grotesque - that wouldn't fit the story, but the haunts are expected to heat up in those final minutes, and they simply didn't in any way that provided justice to the buildup. The ending's pleasingly hopeless, which is appreciated by lovers of dark horror, but without skin-crawling bits or nightmare-fueled images the film can't meet the high expectations one sets throughout watching intensely.
Being a strong, groundbreaking thriller, it's a shame Let's Scare Julie couldn't wrap up with an unforgettably terrifying conclusion. It's a fun, effective, and not-so-farfetched tale that may make you sweat, but it never breaks free from rigid thriller territory. Cremata's direction is a superb risk that makes for a uniquely ill at ease watch. The performances are brilliant and real. It has a lot going for it in terms of relatability and mood, but it isn't the hair-raising haunt it could have been. Teen audiences may find some late-night creeps with Let's Scare Julie, but horror heads will likely be unsatisfied. That said, it's worth a view for anyone who wants a new kind of thriller or trip back into feeling like a teen again. To those interested, Let's Scare Julie premieres on Digital and On Demand everywhere on October 2nd from Shout Studios. To the film's credit, I'm already open to a re-watch, but on a dark evening next time around.