The Josh Ruben Movies Ranked
In my (younger) youth, I watched a lot of CollegeHumor. The site/YouTube channel was formative in, ironically, my pre-college years, and I certainly wasn’t alone. The main attraction for me was the web series JAKE AND AMIR (2007-present), but sister series HARDLY WORKING (2007–2015) and various other one-off sketches also invested me in the organization. One performer, Josh Ruben, was a favorite, and he also moved behind the camera as time went on. I actually interviewed Ruben for a podcast of mine in 2016 (now long-defunct), and at that time, he was working on a number of short film projects and commercial shoots. So when I saw that he had directed his first feature in 2020, with SCARE ME, I was excited to see the development of his career. Since then, he has directed two further features (more clarification incoming), working mostly in the horror genre, but incorporating his comedy background. What I explore here are just those three features, not the numerous shorts from the CollegeHumor years and beyond that could be attributed as part of Ruben’s filmography. That’s not to write them off, but to acknowledge the newest and larger scale aspect of his up-and-coming career.
#3 — DEATH TO 2021 (2021)
Co-director: Jack Clough
We start with a “movie” that could, from one perspective, not be considered a “feature” in the way we term 90-ish-minute fictional films. DEATH TO 2021 is a follow up to Netflix’s mockumentary comedy special DEATH TO 2020 (2020), the brainchild of BLACK MIRROR’s (2011–19) Charlie Brooker and spiritual successor to his year-end specials on British TV. As with many TV projects, Brooker is seen as the “auteur” behind the project (although he was more loosely involved with this one), which wouldn’t quite be qualified as a series and kind of goes into “TV movie” category as I see it. This background serves to explain why I consider DEATH TO 2021 a full-fledged movie and also the circumstance that Ruben came into with co-directing it. The formula, look, and template of the DEATH TO… movies were set before his involvement, and in co-directing with Jack Clough, it isn’t quite clear to me what Ruben’s specific contribution was. I do know he tweeted about directing some performers in the talking head segments, however. In spite of or perhaps because of Ruben’s direction (though I’m inclined to believe the former), DEATH TO 2021 is a pretty miserable little pile of humor. DEATH TO 2020 was already not very good, which was based on a series of nihilistic doomerism jokes that had already been made on social media for all of that accursed year. It was enlivened, however, by the performances of Hugh Grant, Samuel L. Jackson, and others, who played fictional characters in talking head segments between Laurence Fishburne’s understated narration, slick graphics, and archival footage. It’s a parody of the documentary/TV special formula we’ve seen a million times, and for DEATH TO 2021, it rings even more hollow with a continuation of the same kind of jokes for the second year in a row. And those jokes are in fact weaker, with even Grant’s work (he was the standout performer the previous year) not able to rise above the worsened writing quality. DEATH TO 2021’s failure at being a funny retrospective covering some hard topics may not lie entirely with Ruben’s direction, and as mentioned, I’m not sure what aspects, good or bad, I should attribute to him. That can happen in the world of TV and its visual templates set by creators and showrunners. But as a feature-length (I consider 60 minutes feature-length), standalone-ish movie-shaped thing, DEATH TO 2021 is without a doubt the worst with Ruben’s directorial credit affixed to it.
#2 — SCARE ME (2020)
Ruben’s directorial debut was a clear ode to his favorite aspects of the horror genre. SCARE ME is a creative interpretation of spoken-word “scary stories,” with Ruben himself starring with Aya Cash to deliver compelling scares and humor on the strength of their dialogue and limited setting alone. Ruben’s rubber face helps things along nicely, and Cash is ultimately able to impart a depth to her archetypal “strong woman” character that loops into Ruben’s socially conscious script. The lighting and investing sound design are nice twists and immediate markers of a director who is not totally relying on traditional horror structure. I say “totally,” however, because SCARE ME also falls into awkward territory with baffling plot points and character developments. Chris Redd’s character is a welcome addition to the duo’s dynamic, but his appearance and disappearance are so flaccid that it almost makes you question why he was included at all. The ending of SCARE ME also isn’t quite twisty enough for me; its final emotional moments don’t always land, although there is a moment in particular where I see what Ruben was trying to say with positions of his and Cash’s characters. Ultimately, the movie is a solid and impressive debut, a movie, like many others, that is about other movies. But then, that’s the point, and the metatextual references serve SCARE ME’s universe rather than annoyingly pointing to ours with a “remember that!?”
#1 — WEREWOLVES WITHIN (2021)
WEREWOLVES WITHIN may stand as one of the greatest video-game-to-film adaptations ever. But then, that may be because Ruben’s sophomore effort has little to do with Ubisoft’s multiplayer VR game, modeled after the Mafia-style group games most anyone has played at some point in their adolescence. Besides DEATH TO 2021, which may be seen outside of Ruben’s direct involvement, the director clearly has a thing for snowy horror. Like SCARE ME, WEREWOLVES WITHIN sees characters snowed in. This whodunit, however, features a large ensemble, led notably and strongly by Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub. It’s shot and played on a much larger scale than SCARE ME, but still resides within the low-budge horror zone that can yield some great surprises. Ruben, with his first two films, has done a great job of channeling “left-wing horror,” a phrase I like to borrow from John Carpenter. As opposed to “right-wing horror,” WEREWOLVES WITHIN acknowledges the terror within us complicated humans, as opposed to blaming all evil on the “other.” Of course, ultimately there is an other in the movie, but building on the same theme from SCARE ME, Ruben makes the somewhat tired but ultimately salient point that, yes, maybe we are the real monsters. But it’s not like WEREWOLVES WITHIN is some self-serious “elevated horror” picture; Ruben has just been able to fuse (in this case from Mishna Wolff’s script) a little bit of commentary with great genre moments. WEREWOLVES WITHIN isn’t the most revolutionary horror comedy, but it’s a really solid one, and an exciting improvement of the instincts Ruben already displayed with SCARE ME.