By Kevin Redding
At roughly 4 a.m. in the quiet dark, when most everybody else is well into their sleep, I find myself wired and wide-eyed in front of a bright screen, fueling my own nightmares with the never-ending maze of horrors that is late-night Internet exploration. Zeitgeist conspiracy theories. Creepypasta stories. Reddit threads about paranormal experiences. Ghosts caught on tape. If you stare into the background of this security footage long enough, you will see something horrifying. Urban legends. Folklore about the Krampus. There’s the shadow of a hanging Munchkin in the backdrop of a Wizard of Oz scene. If you listen to “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” backwards while doing a handstand, you can hear the Beatles sing “Paul is Dead and the Beelzebub is Coming for you.”
No matter how many scary films and books I consume, none of them seem to hold a candle to the shudders I get from that weird nook of the web I often find myself in, where I’m always too scared to delve deeper but too fascinated to stop. At the end of the day, that’s what I know I’m most scared of: hearing, seeing, reading people spill about the weird and unsettling things that may or not be real. I’m sort of addicted to the fear that I feel from it. I like freaking myself out, and that’s precisely what pulls me towards the horror genre in general, but for a while there the scares found in modern horror were growing a bit stale.
Certainly the old stand-by narrative horrors that I love (Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, The Exorcist, The Shining, Videodrome, An American Werewolf in London, Eraserhead, to name a few) still had an effect on me, but all in all, it was getting harder and harder for a movie to really scare me, and so I’d seek refuge in Google.
However, that all changed when I was scrolling through Netflix on one of these 4 a.m. binges and happened upon a documentary that I’d been hearing about for a while at that point. Room 237, the 2012 doc/horror film hybrid that explores some fascinating, outlandish and down-right unsettling fan theories on the true meaning of Kubrick’s The Shining, had created a profound and controversial impact when it made its festival rounds, and I recalled reading about the backlash: that it was ridiculous and stupid and that anybody who actually believed this crap was clearly out of their minds, etc. (Such criticism, as I later realized by watching, was in itself ridiculous and stupid, because the documentary isn’t presenting these theories as fact and the theories in no way are a reflection of what the documentary is. Then again, an argument over what this movie is and isn’t about is a beautiful mirror of what’s going on within the doc). Overall, I went into it not really knowing much about it except that it was about The Shining, and that it had a cool cover. I love The Shining and behind-the-scenes things, which is what I assumed this was predominantly, so I figured, let me give this a spin.
And when I started watching Room 237, which uses an odd, interesting, and visually mesmerizing array of archival footage from movies, old TV shows and newsreels to convey the ideas within the theories of the five unseen theorists, I soon realized what it was doing, and was immediately engaged and delighted that it existed. It masterfully captures what it means to be completely overcome by movies; to see in them what may or may not be there. Actually believing that The Shining is one big metaphor for the slaughter and genocide of the American Indians, or that it’s only a red herring that serves as Kubrick’s confession to being responsible for the faking of the Apollo moon landing (my favorite of the theories, explained with passionate conviction by Jay Weidner) is irrelevant because what we’re really watching in Room 237 is (an explanation for who Lincoln’s true killer was…?!?!?!?!) not propaganda forcing these theories down our throats, but rather a showcase of love and passion for movies at its most engaging, wild and bizarre. And yeah, scary. This documentary scared me a lot. Speaking of that, it’s difficult to really boil it down to a documentary, because it’s so cinematic and so different, and works on so many levels, i.e. straight horror movie status.
It really tapped into the things that really trigger my goosebumps: the wild theories being explained persuasively and determinedly, the incredible utility of Moog-synth that unsettles throughout, an eerie compiling of a bunch of clips and media.
Room 237 is like a film adaptation of frightening-but-fascinating late-night Internet scrolling. Much like the interviewees who found their inspiration in Kubrick and The Shining, I felt absorbed in Room 237 and whoever put this work of art together, and what they were doing. After watching it a few times, I immediately wanted more movies like it. To my disappointment, I would have to wait for director Rodney Ascher’s next project to get this kind of movie again.
Luckily, however, I was able to track down some earlier work of Ascher’s on Vimeo, where a channel of grainy short films live. In these shorts (which includes Visions of Terror, a great little horror-comedy where a boogeyman-type haunts a woman with suggestions for really, really scary movies) there’s a mixture of love for horror and movies themselves and interesting people fixated on interesting things (Enter the Optigan).
And then there’s The S From Hell, the precursor to Room 237, which like the latter film assembles archival footage as visual counterparts to a soundtrack of interviews, only this time commentators are explaining their childhood fears of the old Screen Gems logo. One inferviewee even dubbed the logo “the personification of all things evil.”
This summer, Ascher’s second feature-length doc/horror film hybrid, The Nightmare, was released to rave reviews, with many critics considering it the scariest film of the decade. Gathering testimonials from those who have suffered terrifying sleep paralysis, the film manages to really illustrate the experience for those who are unfamiliar with what sleep paralysis is. Re-enactments are extremely cinematic and effective, similar to the scariest sequences out of The Babadook or A Nightmare on Elm Street rather than, say, something found on an A&E true crime show. What’s so great about Ascher as a filmmaker is that nobody else makes a movie quite like he does. He’s found this simultaneously scary and fascinating niche within documentary filmmaking that stires audiences into discussion. He also seems to make movies that speak to the 4 a.m. conspiracy-theory-and-nightmare-seeking masochists like me, and for that, I am forever grateful.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Ascher over the phone. We discussed his fears as a kid, his filmmaking style and horror movies.
TB: A really cool common thread with your films is a sort of old school 1980’s vibe. The scores used are predominantly synth-based, and there’s heavy emphasis on VHS tapes in your work, ranging from the early films on Vimeo to The Nightmare. What fascinates you about that?
RA: That’s the stuff that was really able to bake in my bones, and bake into my brain when I was growing up. It was stuff I watched. It’s kind of funny to see what affects you that doesn’t necessarily affect other folks who were exposed to the same thing. I know, the S From Hell, it happened because I was actually researching another project and I stumbled across this guys’ website where he was talking about his childhood phobia of that logo and it was like time travel to me. I flashback to being 3 years old and sitting on my grandparents’ carpet a couple inches away from their old TV watching Saturday morning cartoons for hours on end. And when that logo, or some other logo came up that had that sort of proto-computer animation and synthesizer music, it really freaked me out. It wasn’t just a straight up fear-reaction like some of the people in The S From Hell have but I was struggling to understand it and there’s a part of me that thought when that stuff came up, it was like we were losing signal from a broadcast and i was seeing the machine language inside the TV. Sort of like when the operating system of a Windows computer breaks and you just see all the garble stuff underneath.
As a kid, I thought something of an equivalent nature was happening on TV, that we were losing the signal and I was seeing the language of the Gremlins that control the screen. Of course, I was young and didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about that stuff so I never mentioned it to my parents, I wouldn’t know how to begin to talk about it but that feeling came right back to me when I was reading this guy’s accounts. And it was something I tried to capture in the film. There’s certainly hyperbole in that movie that’s supposed to be funny but it’s also trying to get at that weird vertigo childhood fear. And the shows of that era, things like Lost in Space, or The Monkees, or The Martian Chronicles in the 80’s, I always felt there was always something off about those shows. Like in Land of the Lost where they’d go into those little booths that have these diamond-shaped windows and they’d rearrange the crystals and time and space would kind of fall apart, that stuff both attracted and repelled me at the same time. It’s funny cuz The Nightmare is, arguably, about a very different situation but I found the feelings that would come to me when I started working on that project were very similar because of the things that people I would talk to would say. It kind of connects to that imagery too. That childhood fear. Everything seems to connect.
I’ve got a 5 year old now and he’s been getting into Gigantor and that show is operating on the same kind of level. I’m reading a book about spiritualists and there’s an interesting connection between the rise of communication technology and the sort of psychic phenomenon that those guys were exploring, that they evolved in parallel. Like as the telegraph was invented, the ghosts were knocking Morse code, and then they started speaking in a way that echoed the development of the telephone. Technology and paranormal seem to evolve side by side. Even movies like Poltergeist or Paranormal Activity find surprising connections between the supernatural and consumer electronics.
TB: I feel like those early fears surrounding television sort of shaped you as a filmmaker today. What were you like as a kid?
RA: I was kind of a nerd interested in comic books and animation and science fiction and horror. I drew a lot. Growing up, I had wanted to be a comic book artist and I
almost made an arbitrary decision to become a filmmaker based on the idea that it would be more social, that I would spend my days on a set working with friends and colleagues as opposed to being isolated in my room in front of a drawing board. But the joke’s on me, because now I spend all day in front of a computer.
TB: In The S From Hell, you throw in the clip from Halloween III of the kid horrifically killed by the mask, one of my favorites.
RA: Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a timeless classic. I’m happy to see it’s starting to become a more popular cult movie. 10 or 15 years ago, it was really out in the wilderness and now people are coming around on it. Certainly I love that film.
TB: What other horror films do you love?
RA: I love The Shining. As a kid of the 80’s, I really liked [Larry Cohen’s] Q and Paul Schrader’s Cat People. The first Alien. There’s a Ken Russell movie called The Lair of the White Worm that made a big impression on me, which I just love. It’s like an erotic adventure of Scooby Doo. Demons and Demons II, referenced (through clips) in The Nightmare and Room 237. I adore Re-Animator, and Romero’s early films. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Carpenter’s The Thing. Certainly a lot of 80s movies, but also going back to The Night of the Hunter, which is just kind of a perfect haunted fairy tale. Spider Baby.
TB: And your end-all, be-all favorite horror film?
RA: Oh God, I might go with The Night of the Hunter. It’s beautiful to look at, it has a fairy tale-like simplicity, there’s the healthy distrust in authority. It’s genuinely horrifying about these kids who nobody believes and they’re left to their own resources and there’s the phrase in it that ‘the world is a hard place for small things,’ which as a kid, is terrifying and as a parent, is heartbreaking. It’s very funny at points and this character most people see as a pillar of the community is actually a monster.
TB: At what age did you first delve into filmmaking?
RA: I did an experiment or two in high school, some Super 8 films that were just complete disasters for the most part, so it wasn’t until college. I was sort of taking a bunch of film classes and thinking I could just do it. I knew I wanted to do something that involved creativity and storytelling in some respect, whether it was writing or drawing or film or anything like that.
TB: And you had been making a bunch of films leading up to The S From Hell, which really got you attention.
RA: I hate to look back but [I had been making films for] about 15 years, probably longer. I got out of school and I worked in almost every capacity from props and set design, camera, was a production assistant forever, was a storyboard artist on kickboxing movies shot in Miami, a thousand commercials, and at the time me and my friends were making weird short films and music videos for local punk rock bands. A friend and I used to do some projections and things and film loops. We did some for Marilyn Manson when he was back in his Florida days, as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids. We shot some of those shows and moved to San Francisco and did a lot of animation while freelancing on shows and commercials and things. I worked on a couple music videos, directed a few TV commercials. I had a half dozen rises and falls before The S From Hell and Room 237, which were kind of my Hail Mary path. It was almost feeling like it was the end of the game.
I was teaching and doing freelancing work. When The S from Hell was made, I didn’t assume it was gonna be of much interest to anyone else. But much to my surprise, it broke pretty wide by my standards. It led me to work on Room 237 on the weekends while I did my day job. I was probably close to getting a full time job as an editor before Room 237 broke.
TB: I’m so glad you didn’t give up filmmaking!
RA: You and me both, man. [laughs]
TB: In Room 237, I think it’s great that you just let these people go wild about their theories and you employed no real judgment or bias towards any specific theories. Was that always the plan?
RA: Certainly I’ve responded to films and stories that are written from multiple perspectives. I remember there were a pair of books I read as a kid “The Bully of Barkham Street” and “Tales of a Teenage Nothing”, two books that told the same story from the point of view of a kid being bullied and then the bully. Certainly that’s something I’ve always been interested in as an audience member, and it’s been a big thread in these projects I’ve been working on. You know, sometimes as an audience member, I resent an omniscient narrator who tells us exactly what we’re supposed to believe and I’m not sure exactly where my distrust of it comes from, but if narrators have a personality and a point of view, then what they’re saying isn’t necessarily just an info dump, but it’s also about telling us about their character. If you agree with their point of view and you find it persuasive, then that’s great, but if you don’t, you still learn something about this person and that’s still kind of interesting. Room 237 is about Kubrick and one of the things I love about him is that he would often use dialogue more as a way of setting the scene, setting the mood, giving us a window into somebody’s role or somebody’s personality and the nuts and bolts of what they’re saying isn’t always that important. The same goes for Bret Easton Ellis who has a narrator who will give an entire restaurant review and the details of this restaurant, which isn’t particularly all that important but the fact that he obsesses about these details tells us a lot about the character.
TB: The editing in your films, especially Room 237, is incredible. The blend of all these random clips and footage and media to convey an idea blew me away and was wildly fascinating to watch. Especially when you bring in the footage from Demons that shows the crowd in the 80’s watching a movie in the theater, being completely absorbed by it, while we’re hearing about someone being absorbed by their first viewing of The Shining in the theatre. It lines up perfectly.
RA: Yeah, and in Demons, it becomes literal. You don’t see anything coming out of the screen in Room 237 but Demons takes it a step beyond and creatures emerge out of the screen and into real life and it’s an 80’s audience but because it’s an Italian film shot in Germany, in English, it kinda looks like it comes from a parallel dimension, which worked well for the film.
TB: How did you find your unique style of filmmaking? That doc-horror film hybrid?
RA: By accident, I think. I was working in a bunch of different styles and it seems like with some of these projects, the style sort of felt like the only way to do them. With The S From Hell, it seemed like the only thing that made sense for it. I’m kind of pulling from horror films, but especially older horror films from the 60’s to the 80’s and I was always really into super-cuts and mashups, and I always loved collage films or cut-ups. You know stuff by Craig Baldwin, or Bruce Conner, experiments by Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network and that was always sort of a separate interest of mine besides the conventional narrative stuff. But I had done experiments in that style going back to film school. What was fun about The S From Hell and Room 237 and The Nightmare was trying to combine all these styles. There are a lot of archival things with original scenes I shot, which came together really naturally. There’s like a 20 second collage film sequence in Down and Out in Beverly Hills that made a big impression on me.
TB: I equate the effect of your films to staying up late and getting freaked out by things one might read online. Then I read that was exactly what spurred The Nightmare, besides your own experience with sleep paralysis, of course.
RA: Certainly. Reading Reddit threads of sleep paralysis stories I found completely unnerving and frightening. Even on YouTube, a ton of people give testimonials about it. Reddit and Facebook and Boingboing were places where we started our search to find people for the movie. Of the eight folks [in the movie], half of them were folks that we found posting on sites and the other half were people who found us after we put the word out. But I would say comparing the movie to a live-action journey through a Reddit comment thread would be a compliment because I find that to be very profound.
TB: Was there anything therapeutic about making the film, having experienced sleep paralysis yourself?
RA: The worst of the sleep paralysis that I experienced happened a long time ago in college so it wasn’t something I was seeking closure to. It was just that my own experience made it plain to me that this was something very interesting and very extreme that is criminally under-reported and really helped to relate to the people I was talking to and take them serious and understand the reality of what they were talking about. For whatever reason, I would be less freaked out by what someone said in person than reading it on the page or the website, I always found that more disturbing. There was a point regarding the film where I’m worried, even with all the music and the graphics and re-enactments. My biggest fear was, would this be not as effective as reading this stuff online? We did our best but there’s something about reading it alone and knowing this is only one story of thousands that are floating around it, that could be very powerful. I tried to suggest in both Room 237 and The Nightmare that what you’re seeing here is a very small sample of what’s out there.
TB: I think you captured that feeling really well. What do you think of the fact that The Nightmare is being regarded as one of the best horror films of the decade?
RA: When I think about how many movies are made every year that just get kind of pulled back into the tide, and a lot of them are really good, you’re winning the lottery if people wanna talk about your movie, even if they don’t like it. It’s a great compliment, yeah.
TB: You seem to really embrace criticism, re-tweeting harsh reviews of Room 237.
RA: I remember growing up reading magazines like Film Threat and Forced Exposure and they really embraced the critics in a way that was funny. I experienced it probably more with 237, because 237 in particular is about seeing the same movie differently so it always seemed very on message to tweet someone who liked it right after someone who hated it. The Nightmare has the similar multiple-points-of-view, but I feel a little more naked with it, since I’m in it a little bit. I think I try to do that from time to time. It was easier and more natural with 237.
TB: What do you make of the state of horror these days and how do you scare an audience?
RA: In some ways, it’s so much easier. You can study old films and see how they work, scientifically. The science of jump scares is getting close to perfection. As far as psychological fear, I think there are all sorts of existential horrors of falling into oblivion and abandonment and being at the mercy of people who don’t give a crap about you. That will always be disturbing. Toy Story 3 was a pretty horrifying and terrifying movie about abandonment. And The Babadook. I think, actually the first half of it was scarier, about a single mom who’s having trouble paying the bills, whose son is uncontrollable. Especially when you look at it from where the economy might be. What does this woman do? There’s no social safety net. She can’t manage her son! I’ve got a son and I’m doing better these days than I was years ago, but being an experimental documentary filmmaker isn’t exactly a Wall Street job so there’s all sorts of fears about stability and the future that are easy to identify with and that’s before the monster comes. Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema did a great analysis of The Birds and Psycho saying, if you wanna know what horror movies are really about, take away the horror aspect and see what’s left in the story and certainly that works in The Babadook, that the creature is a literal manifestation of the family’s problems.
TB: And there’s some similarity there to the Torrances in The Shining, for sure. What’s next for you?
RA: I’m developing another hybrid documentary-narrative that deals with similar themes. Again, everything’s connected and they all seem to go back to some of the same questions as the previous films.
TB: Thanks, Rodney, I appreciate the chat. One last question: If you could make another film a la 237 about fan theories surrounding a particular movie, what would that film be?
RA: I probably wouldn’t, but Death Wish would be a contender, because that film would likely span political and personal ideas.
You can find The S From Hell on Vimeo:
Room 237 is on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
The Nightmare will soon be available on demand and DVD. Watch the trailer here: