‘Room 237’ Director Rodney Ascher Talks About Creepy Ads And His New Documentary ‘Primal Screen’

Getty Image / Shudder

What scared you as a child? There are some biggies we all share like, say, the dark or ghosts and such. But those aren’t the ones that interest filmmaker Rodney Ascher. For the half-hour documentary Primal Screen, the first in a possible series Ascher directed for the horror-leaning screening service Shudder, Ascher explores one specific source of childhood trauma that stuck with those exposed to it at a young age: the TV ad for the 1978 film magic, a thriller about a ventriloquist (Anthony Hopkins) whose dummy seems to take on a life of its own. Go ahead and give it a look to see if you can figure out why.

Creepy, right? But for the subjects of Primal Screen, the spot’s impact went beyond a momentary shudder. They talk at length about its lasting impact and how it fed into a lifelong fear of dolls and dummies and made itself felt in other ways. From there, Ascher goes further, touching on ventriloquism’s roots in necromancy — the act of making the dead speak — and connecting it to the ways in which online communication mimics talking through a puppet, with all the added liberties personality fragmentation that applies. (Consider, for starters, those emboldened by talking behind a Pepe avatar behind a fake name.) In other words, the 30-second commercial is just the center of a project that spirals out in several different directions at once.

In that way, it’s in keeping with Ascher’s other work, starting with his short film “The S From Hell,” which examines those similarly affected by the Screen Gems logo, and continuing through his feature films. Ascher’s 2012 film Room 237 weaves together the eccentric commentaries of several fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. His 2015 follow-up, The Nightmare, captures the experiences of those suffering from the terrifying condition of sleep paralysis and the impact it’s had on their lives. All employed what’s now his signature technique, also on display in Primal Screen, mixing archival footage with creepy, airless recreations to unnerving effect. Ascher has yet to make a horror feature of his own, but he’s well-versed in the language of horror filmmaking, using it to suggest what it might be like to understand The Shining in a way that no one else does or be locked into a waking nightmare or, with this project, be a child in the late-’70s confronted with a powerful commercial they can’t quite understand. We spoke to Ascher about how he settled on this particular commercial and what scared him as a kid.

I’m sure you had many possible subjects to pull from. How did you settle on the TV commercial for Magic?

The short answer is it’s a simple but completely horrifying TV commercial that is still being remembered thirty-plus years later. But it also was a great window into talking about some of the stranger aspects of ventriloquism and why it’s sort of disturbing on the surface, but also how it connects to things that are getting more and more important today.

When did you realize that there’s more to it than just this commercial to talk about?

That was always the idea with this project, that we would start with an old TV commercial or a character from a movie or an image on a record cover or something, and it would be the starting-off place for deeper conversations about things that get under our skin, or made us think about bigger topics. And ventriloquism is a biggie. There’s all sorts of strange questions as people, especially these days, are projecting their voices through different characters. It kind of gives you freedom to say things that you might not say face-to-face.

You’re roughly the same age as your interview subjects in this project. Do you find that it’s harder to tap into those feelings when you’re dealing with people who are of a different era? With someone who’s younger or older, is it harder to kind of access those feelings?

Maybe we’ll find out if we do a lot more of these, because as much as I enjoy the imagery from the ’60s to the ’80s, say, I’d love to do them about more recent ones that might not have occurred to me because I was too old to take them very seriously. I had done a short along these lines called “The S from Hell” years ago, and that’s something that kinda seems like an artifact from the ’70s, but then a high school student made one where he talked to his friends and they were talking about new logos of the 21st century.

Bruce Conner had a huge effect on me in film school, and he had recycled a lots of imagery, lots of it from the ’50s and before. And I think, maybe because they were public domain, a lot of the films that Mystery Science Theater 3000 covered were ’50s-era. And I remember reading an article, I think it was in Film Threat, kind of challenging people to stop using ’50s-era monster movies and atom bombs in their collages, and to wrestle with the imagery that seems much … The contemporary imagery that seems that much less interesting to folks.

And then I came across an amazing montage this guy made of like ’90s-era TV commercials and their music sort of created the story that these children playing with these toys and the commercials were kind of getting themselves up to this level of transcendence. And montages create that … Just seeing somebody do a cut-up with that new material was very exciting to me. Which I guess is kind of a very long, convoluted way of saying, I hope there’s stuff that you can do with younger people telling the stories and talking about more and more contemporary triggers. Sure.

Early on you seem to have made the decision that leting your subjects do the talking was going to produce more interesting results than a more guided conversation? What do you feel is the advantage of that approach?

Well, I think it’s just a style that I prefer. I think when people are allowed to speak at more length and to do more storytelling than interview-answering, you get a better sense of them as a person. They become a more active character in the story. I think of This American Life as a big influence on these projects. I see them all as kind of enhanced monologue-storytelling. I’m guiding them, but these are not people under my third-degree.

So I guess the big question behind Primal Screen is do you have some sort of grand theory as to what effect these things that scare us as a child have on us as an adult?

The biggest idea is that it’s not incidental. It is more than trivial that we make mountains out of molehills, might be the way to say it. I know some of the things I’ve actually been surprised by in a lot of these projects is… People have told me that some of these things really affected their lives dramatically, things they never told their parents about, things they never told other members of their families about, that they suffered in silence. And although being frightened of a TV commercial is in no way as significant as genuine, like, trauma or abuse, it takes up a fair amount of real estate in people’s heads, and sometimes informs decisions that they make. Or maybe in a slightly more abstract way, just teaches them respective lessons and colors the way that they understand the world.

Is there something like this that had an effect on you as a kid?

There were a couple things. I mean, none of them affected me as profoundly as these folks. There’s one that I remember: I remember going to the record store a lot when I was a kid, and being completely scandalized and horrified by the back cover of Kiss Alive II. It had Gene Simmons’ face covered in blood. And I would see it and get a visceral shot of fear and disgust. Like, what kind of a sick maniac would either make this or buy this? But it had this siren call and every time I went to the store, I would go back and thumb through the records and see if it was still there. And then I would get my little buzz, like probing a cavity with your tongue. I would get that, that little charge and run away from it. Maybe what was so strange about it is… I don’t know, you think of yourself as a single person with a kind of a single voice, but there’s clearly, you know, a good angel and a bad angel that were wrestling.

What do you see is to be gained by reexamining these? And just in generally speaking, looking at pop culture through the eyes of others’ interpretations?

Well, I mean, I think each of these projects, although they’re on the surface, they’re doing the same thing, I think they’re kind reaching for different points. Room 237 was asking the question of who decides what something means? Is it the filmmaker, critics, or the audience? The Nightmare was talking about a specific kind of strange thing that happens to people, and when we got into the section where we showed film, it was other people looking for answers from all kinds of places and the fact that people sometimes see their lives reflected to them in movies, even in a Nightmare on Elm Street kind of movie.

It may be surprising, but I also think maybe a big part of their attraction, even in one tiny little moment in this low-budget, medium-budget horror movie from the ’80s, that’s where people will find a connection to something that was troubling them, or if they were suffering in silence, that would be an indication that there’s communities. And, you know, I think this one is in some ways about where are the things that people trip over that have a way of sticking with them and affecting them and making them think about bigger ideas. I may be reverse-engineering in more complicated explanations than the initial idea of, “Things that really freaked you out as kids! That’s interesting!” Whenever I would talk about that stuff with friends, people would always get very animated, and kind of gleefully revisit the scene of the crime.