Puppet Masters, by Reed Lackey

29 Jun

In the very specific niche realm of horror documentary, there are few voices as compelling or effective as Rodney Ascher. His previous documentaries, Room 237 and (especially) The Nightmare were innovative and compelling examinations of not only what frightens us, but why it frightens us.

His directorial voice was therefore a natural for Shudder’s new original series (its first original content) called Primal Screen. The series focuses on the early and elemental encounters viewing audiences have with horror cinema and how those encounters can dramatically influence their most basic fears and – perhaps – the very direction of their lives.

The focal point of the first installment, called The Wooden Boy, is the teaser trailer for the 1978 film Magic. The trailer is evocative and minimalist, a more common trend for horror and thriller trailers of the late 70s and early 80s. It features a close-up of Fats, a ventriloquist dummy prominently featured in the 1978 film as he manically recites a rhyme about illusion. In any context, the trailer would be unnerving, but Ascher uses the experience of seeing the trailer as a child as the launch pad for a broader discussion about subconscious terrors and primal connections our mental receptors make as we absorb fictitious and sensationalized imagery.

Primal Screen is masterfully constructed, structured like a brief visual essay and paced like a bullet. Audibly, it is exclusively reliant on the testimony of people who saw the trailer as children and how it impacted their lifelong dreads. Visually, Ascher constructs minimal reenactments of the moments described and intersperses stock footage relevant to the subject. This is a style Ascher has implemented in all of his previous work and it serves him well here.

By never showing us the faces of the people communicating these stories, but by skillfully uniting those stories with creepy imagery of dolls, mannequins, and – of course – ventriloquist dummies, Ascher positions us inside the terror making us feel the fear being discussed. Although no blood is shed and no real threat is ever made, I can’t recall a more disturbing or unsettling thirty minutes I’ve seen lately.

But the real power of Primal Screen, at least for this initial installment directed by Ascher (and I do hope to God there’s many more of these), is in its final few minutes, where it takes the argument about its subject’s phobic power from the question of “how” to the question of “why”. Rodney Ascher spends 20 minutes building an effective case for how frightening lifelike effigies in any form can be, whether intended as playful (dolls), practical (mannequins), or entertaining (puppets and dummies). But in the last five minutes, he posits a theory as to why they are so frightening. His argument for our subconscious psychological reaction to such stimuli is compelling enough to be nearly irrefutable.

Are we the puppet masters? Or are we the puppets? Are we the ventriloquists? Or are we the dummies? It’s the uncertainty of those questions that causes us deep concern: the idea that perhaps we are not as in control of our own faculties as we believe ourselves to be.

Hopefully this will merely be the first of many installments in Shudder’s new original Primal Screen series. Because as a brief examination of the fear of the uncanny valley, The Wooden Boy is a powerful and thrilling work. As the potential justification for an entire series of such examinations, it’s an open and shut case.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply