Let’s Scare Julie (2020)

To the accompaniment of fey flutework from composer Katisse Buckingham, the opening credits of writer/director Jud Cremata’s feature debut Let’s Scare Julie offer elegant animated design in the style of Saul Bass. Here the name of each cast member appears, only to be erased by a red bar, until it becomes clear that these bars form steps in a staircase. In fact stairs abound in the suburbs of Newhall, California, where Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) becomes reluctantly complicit in the plot of her cousin Taylor (Isabel May) and Taylor’s friends Madison (Odeassa Adlon), Jess (Brooke Sorenson) and Paige (Jessica Sarah Flaum) to sneak downstairs past Taylor’s drunken father (Blake Robbins) and to the house across the road where they will head to the upstairs bedroom and play a ‘scare prank’ on mysterious new neighbour Julie, who moved in there with her dad only yesterday. 

Marked as an outsider in this group both by her newcomer status and the colour of her skin, Emma is herself the target of one of these scare pranks in the opening scene of Let’s Scare Julie, and none too happy about it.  “If you want to belong, you just have to go along with stuff,” Taylor says, encouraging Emma to join in, make new friends and rebuild her life after the recent death of her parents. Emma just wants to keep her head down and protect her little sister Lilly (Dakota Baccelli), and refuses to participate in the raiding party on the house next door – but she does help the girls get the key that Taylor’s dad took from the property after its previous occupant, creepy, reclusive Ms Durer, had died, which makes Emma very much a part of what the girls do, and gets her caught up in the harrowing downward spiral of consequences from an adolescent escapade that fast takes a horrific turn. 

The events of Let’s Scare Julie play out in real time, and are shot, like Gustavo Hernández’s La casa muda (2010) and Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s remake Silent House (2011), in long continuous takes which, despite the very occasional visible cut, give an impression of intense immediacy. This quickly becomes claustrophobic, with the camera always cleaving close to Emma even as her choices and prospects become ever narrower, and her doom sealed. DP Chuck Ozeas’ intimate handheld camerawork – aided greatly by the natural performances of the young women and the free association of their banter – lends everything here an air of casual realism which makes the irruption of the irrational all the more alarming. Emma’s own growing sense of confusion and disorientation, as she ties to determine whether what is going down is just anther prank from the girls, soon gives way to panic and despair – and the film allows us to watch this transition as it happens, without the relief of cutaways or flashbacks. 

It is an extraordinary piece of acting from Johnson, aided by some very technically assured mise-en-scène that carefully conceals its own art. Yet best of all, Let’s Scare Julie is not a mere gimmick film, and is in no way reducible to its fluid, insidious camerawork – but rather this is made to serve a genuinely unnerving story that freaks the viewer out as much as Emma. The cinematography, typically observing events over Emma’s shoulder, increasingly becomes suggestive of another character’s disembodied perspective, always watching and circling in close from behind. Like the protean pursuer in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), this presence in Cremata’s film punishes transgressive teens for their errant rites of passage, and confronts them with their encroaching mortality (“I’m gonna. like, die before I turn 21,” as Taylor says in an early scene). These girls, in their prime and taking tentative steps towards expressing their sexuality, ought to have their whole lives ahead of them, and yet it is all downhill – or at least downstairs – from here. 

strap: Jud Cremata’s panicky Let’s Scare Julie shows an adolescent ‘scare prank’ going very wrong in real time, with uncanny consequences

© Anton Bitel