Primal Screen (2017)

Primal Screen first published by

Documentarian Rodney Ascher likes to explore the nexus between frightening media and our own haunted unconscious. He is perhaps best known for his feature-length Room 237 (2012) which focused on the hermeneutic overexuberance which some individuals have obsessively applied to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – and while his follow-up, The Nightmare (2015), was primarily concerned with sleep paralysis, it also carefully traced the connection between this phenomenon and certain horror films. Before both of these, Ascher had made a short documentary, The S From Hell (2010), in which he attempted to recreate the terror induced in young impressionable viewers by the imagery and sound of the 1964 Screen Gems television logo.

All of these are a foretaste for Ascher’s latest, Primal Screen, which begins with three adult males, Gary, Daniel and Greg, reminiscing about their childhood experience of being terrified by the TV spot for Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978) – an ad which showed the ventriloquist’s dummy ‘Fats’ in close-up, staring straight into the camera while babbling away creepily.

Greg was already a sufferer of automatonophobia, a recognised fear of human simulacra, and the ad for Magic pushed him over the edge (he has since recovered entirely). Gary, who as a child was already showing interest in puppetry and performance, was driven by the ad to hide his own ventriloquist’s dummy in the bedroom closet – and to this day, though now a professional ventriloquist, he has avoided watching Attenborough’s film. And Daniel, who had until then aspired to be a puppeteer, was triggered by the ad’s twin effect on him – repulsion coupled with a strange attraction – to pursue a different yet parallel career as a writer (a manipulator, as he says, of words rather than of models). In other words, that trailer, and the fear that it instilled, proved formative to the development of all three.

From this, Ascher expands (in five headed sections) on the unnerving effects of anthropoid dolls, mannequins, puppets, robots, even online avatars – and what this reveals about humanity itself. At the same time, while this story, part sociological, part philosophical, is played out in vivid reenactments and in carefully selected file footage from films, television and youtube clips, the real Gary, Daniel and Greg remain conspicuously absent: we hear their narrating words, but they never themselves appear on screen except virtually through the proxy of actors. In this way, they too are like dummies, conjured and given uncanny life by disembodied voices and the magic power of Ascher’s film.

The status of Primal Screen itself is similarly provisional. It appears to have started off as a would-be TV series, with this entry (entitled ‘The Wooden Boy’) the first of several projected episodes – but now it has been picked up not by any television network, but by horror streaming service Shudder, and it is not clear whether any further instalments from Ascher will follow, or whether this is now all there ever will be to Primal Screen. It remains, though, a compelling study of personal and collective fear, as well as a self-reflexive portrait of the human animal and its approximate imitations in representative arts and entertainments.

Summary: Rodney Ascher’s documentary goes deep into the uncanny valley of the dolls.

© Anton Bitel