Filmmaker Rodney Ascher seems to enjoy subverting the tropes of both horror films and documentaries by blending the two styles together. Other documentaries, such as Catfish, The Impostor, or Resurrect Dead have been successful at creating suspense and generating fear, but they accomplish this by withholding information and subsequently revealing the depths of duplicity of which humans are capable. With The Nightmare, Ascher used well-crafted reenactments and first-person narratives to inspire a sense of horror in the viewer. He continues to develop this technique in his latest project, Primal Screen. It is a fitting title, as one of Ascher’s greatest skills as a filmmaker is the ability to tap into humanity’s most primal fears.
Primal Screen looks at the fear of ventriloquist dummies, dolls, and mannequins. Like the fear of clowns, this is an especially specific fear with which one either emphasizes or doesn’t. While even non-horror movie fans would find being chased by an ax-wielding maniac something they would not want to experience in real life, it’s harder to explain just what it is about lifelike facsimiles of human figures that instills such dread in so many people.
By utilizing voiceovers and period-perfect scenes of children watching a trailer for the 1978 film Magic, Primal Screen goes above and beyond the often cheesy reenactments of shows like Unsolved Mysteries or the more recent Occult Crimes. With those shows, it’s often the details of the mysteries and crimes themselves that are the most upsetting, but in Primal Screen, the viewer is invited to participate in the narrators’ fears directly, by getting a taste of what it’s like to experience their fear first hand.
The imagery Ascher employs—which is frequently staged, framed, and lit like an actual horror movie—will feel especially relevant to those who do have a fear of dummies, dolls, and mannequins, while the details the voice-overs reveal might remind others of the fears that they first addressed as children and give them some insight into why this fear is one that seems so common.
Hearing people recount their first realizations of this specific fear was so uncannily similar to my own history with being afraid of dummies and the like, that I found myself laughing out loud because I related so much to what they were saying. While I’ve often talked about my fear of these things, the coping mechanisms that one narrator described were exactly like my own, and it surprised me to hear someone else verbalizing something I had not even thought about in decades.
The end of the documentary even ties in the subject matter with a few things that are especially relevant to the modern political climate, a turn that was both unexpected and thought-provoking. Rather than merely focusing on the past through childhood memories and yesterday’s pop culture, Primal Screen seems more interested in examining the nature of fear itself and how it still impacts us today, which are both far more fascinating subjects.
Primal Screen premiered Thursday, June 8 on Shudder. Plans for additional installments have not yet been announced.