A terrifying wooden dummy smiles out from a cramped TV screen. As the camera slowly zooms in on his wicked wooden face, he screeches out a spooky rhyme: “Abra-cadabra I sit on his knee. Presto! Change-o! And now, he is me! Hocus pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun! We are dead”. As he finishes his petrifying little poem, the dummy closes his eyes as they roll into the back of his head. He is now a dead dummy, and the effect is quite traumatizing, especially if one had been witness to this trailer for 1978’s Magic as a little kid watching their favorite show.
This is the basis of director Rodney Ascher’s latest project, Primal Screen. A man who made a name for himself with his first two documentaries Room 237 and The Nightmare, his latest inquiry into the human mind follows the recollections of people who have been equally repelled and fascinated by something they saw onscreen as a child. More specifically, recollections of a few different men who have fallen prey to automatonophobia, a.k.a. the fear of lifelike effigies. It would be simple to simplify it by saying that these guys basically have always been afraid of dolls, but as Ascher expertly shows, this phobia goes so much deeper than the average innate fear. In the end, whether we realize it or not, we all can relate to feeling a little uneasy about humanized inanimate objects, and we have all, at one point or another, blurted out something we wouldn’t normally say out loud when we felt as though we could say it through a different face.
First of all, I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Room 237 or The Nightmare. They both started out as interesting concepts, but their runtimes felt too long, there were too many interviewees involved, and the topics became repetitive, especially since they were dealing with topics that only a handful of people could relate to – either those that were huge cinema buffs of Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining, or those that had personally experienced sleep paralysis. I could see Ascher’s potential, but I wasn’t satisfied with the projects he had churned out quite yet.
This is why when I say that Primal Screen is without a doubt Ascher’s finest piece of cinema yet, I hope you’ll take me at my word. Unlike his previous work, this one feels much more universal, since nearly everyone can relate to watching something on their television screen when they were little that scarred them for life, whether it be in a small way such as forever remembering feeling a little afraid when they saw the trailer Richard Attenborough’s Magic pop up as a commercial during daytime TV, or in a much larger sense to the point where they can no longer be in the same room with a ventriloquist doll, even as an adult. Either way, everyone has had that moment where they saw a movie or a show or something onscreen that altered their perspective, whether it be that it gave them something new to fear, or that it sparked an interest within them that would not have otherwise existed, we can all recall something spooky that scared us as kids.
Not only does this movie contain a much more relatable subject matter than Ascher’s previous projects, but it’s also a much more innovative film as well, as Ascher dives deep into the background of ventriloquism, citing how necromancy could have possibly served as the original inspiration for people voicing human-like dolls, and goes on to illustrate the hypothesis of uncanny valley, which theorizes that the more human an animate object appears, the more afraid we as humans become of its presence. He even merges social media into his coverage, showing how the anonymity of platforms like Twitter allow users to say things which they never would utter aloud in everyday conversation, simply because they have the mask of a computer hiding their real face. As he brilliantly points out, we are actually not that far removed from dummies with the way our behavior has been in this new modern age. Just as a ventriloquist may use a dummy to speak more honest truths, so, too, do we use social media to speak in ways that are more accurate to how we actually feel because we think that no one can see us saying these things.
With a shorter runtime, much better editing, and a much more relatable and intriguing subject matter, Primal Screen is definitely Ascher’s most prolific work yet. According to Ascher at the question and answer portion following his world premiere at the Overlook Film Fest, he hopes that he and his new business partner, the streaming service Shudder, can add on to this already existing gem, and possibly turn Primal Screen into a full-fledged series with several episodes. If that’s the case, I can honestly say that I will definitely be tuning in, and I hope that you all will do the same.