The horror-focussed streaming service Shudder has been building an impressive selection of films since being established in 2016. As with the likes of Netflix and Amazon, now they are up and running with a solid subscription base, it allows them the opportunity to create original content of their own. Shudder has chosen to kick this off with a documentary strand called Primal Screen. This opener is directed by Rodney Ascher, of the Kubrick-The Shining doc Room 237 fame. The concept behind Primal Screen is the pop culture experiences from our formative years that drew a lot of people towards horror and the macabre and exploring what it was that repelled but compelled us at the same time. It’s a rich seam to mine, as a lot of us grow up but cannot let those early fascinations go.
Some notable books have been released recently focussing on the ‘70s in particular, a decade that seemed to cater to the morbid kid better than any other before or since. And this is where Ascher takes us. Like clowns, many people find the idea of ventriloquists’ dummies inherently creepy. That’s the theme of this first episode, centring on Richard Attenborough’s 1978 film Magic, and for the three men narrating their exposure to the dummy, it still provokes a visceral reaction to this day. As with a lot of those early experiences of the grip of horror, this isn’t even about the film so much as it is about the trailer that would show on TV during their favourite programmes. And after they had seen it they would be haunted by it.
Using a mix of voiceover narration, film clips, recreations and some nightmarish imagery, Ascher uses the sub-30 minute running time to place us as viewers into the same unsettling mix of memory and bad dreams that they each link to that trailer. It’s easy to understand how this would have scared the shit out of a young boy just waiting for his favourite show to come back from an ad break. It’s often one or two things that first gripped us about the horrific and by keeping the focus on this one experience and the things that jumped off from it, Primal Screen is effective and interesting.
Even though you might not think dummies are that creepy or scary it’s rather the themes that are universal and that’s what works. That short running time helps here as Primal Screen gets its job done without having to stretch out anything unnecessarily. The effective reconstructions and clever use of the trailer as well as other clips make this a documentary well worth checking out and a great start for Shudder’s original programming.
PRIMAL SCREEN EPISODE 1 / DIRECTOR: RODNEY ASCHER / STARRING: GREGORY BURKART, DANIEL FERRANTI, GARY HOLLAND / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW (VIA SHUDDER)