Six horror fans head into the wilds for Slasher Sleepout, a camping event of orienteering, puzzle-solving and woodland terror billed as “the ultimate horror movie experience.” Well, really that is five horror fans and Alex (Marcienne Dwyer), gamely coming along with her boyfriend of 13 months Nathan (Matt Dellapna) after his best friend had to pull out at the last minute. Alex, you see, does not watch horror, though she still, like everyone, has her own personal nightmares (not to mention the androgynous name typical of a final girl) – and as members of the group start turning up dead, she will need, if she is to survive the weekend, to sort out what is real, what is mere fakery, and which direction she wants her life to take.
“Reviews on Fangoria say this is the best.” comments polyamorous goth Marina (Eva Hamilton) of Slasher Sleepout. “It’s a slasher trope,” acknowledges nerdish Larry (Chris Hill) later, when taciturn Tim (Cameron Gordon) goes mysteriously missing. Which is to say that Preston DeFrancis’ feature debut Ruin Me is not just ‘for the fans’, but also very much about them. For it takes great pleasure in tracing its genre-savvy characters’ attempts to second guess what is going on and what will happen next, armed not just with individual items (a hammer, a gun, a torch, a newspaper clipping, a compass, a condom) but also with a knowledge of horror clichés at least as good as their audience’s. Meanwhile, the viewer (hopefully) gets no less lost in the metacinematic woods than the characters do, as we too, in watching this film, go in search of a packaged horror experience that will trick us into believing in its reality, even as we grow increasingly confused as to where the boundary lies between what is staged trickery and cold-blooded murder. One of the rules of Slasher Sleepout is that you have to leave your bags behind – but who knows what past baggage the players, or indeed the viewer, might be bringing along with them to this horror, and how it might affect the game? If everything here is a hoax, why does the film open with, and keep returning to, an impressionistic flashback to a very real trauma of survival from Alex’s past?
Self-consciously reconstructed from references to Saw, Freaks, Shutter Island and any number of slashers set in the woods or around the campfire, Ruin Me is a postmodern horror that makes its own manipulative use of familiar scenarios very much a part of its plotting machinery. Like Vincent Masciale’s Fear, Inc. (2016) and – to a degree – Thomas Jakobsen’s The Unraveling (2016), Ruin Me reimagines David Fincher’s The Game (1997) as slash-and-dash terror. The results are therapeutic, and ambiguous enough that you won’t be any more sure where exactly the horror ends than where it starts, or indeed whether recovery is ever possible.