PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Primal Fear

Ian Chant

Strobe lights and shaky cameras are more comical than intimidating, inducing cringes for all the wrong reasons.

Primal Fear

Distributor: A&E
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: History Channel
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2009-01-20

The History Channel’s Primal Fear sets out to explore the scientific and societal underpinnings of some of our deepest fears, helping us to understand why so many of us are frightened of snakes, or why every culture in the world has a bogeyman. Unfortunately, it’s not satisfied with just explaining we’re afraid of these things, or how the sensation of fear works in our bodies and minds. It also strives to provide some chills of it’s own, and here, hampered by low budget recreations and amateur hour CGI, this laudably intentioned documentary falls laughably on it face.

The most interesting moments of Primal Fear come during interviews with biologists, psychologists, doctors and anthropologists who discuss why and how fears develop, as well as what they do to us. Fear is traced back along evolutionary lines, and given its proper place among our most important and basic emotions. For early hominids, knowing when to be afraid of something was an invaluable trait for survival in a harsh and unforgiving world. And for as much as we’ve progressed from our sharp rock-wielding ancestors, many of our basic fears can be followed directly back to the days of loin cloths and clubs.

Many of our fears are simple matters of evolution. Why do snakes give so many of us the creeps? Because being afraid of snakes is a good way to reduce your chances of being bitten by a snake. This in turn increases ones chances of surviving and passing on their genetic material, which on some level includes knowing that snakes are bad news. Consequently, nature selected for a certain degree of well-reasoned cowardice, with more adventuresome individuals rendered brave and noble cul de sacs on the map of human evolution. Other fears, like fear of sharks and terrorism, are more recent developments, perpetuated by mass media that brings rare but horrific incidents like shark attacks into living rooms and front pages throughout the world.

Unfortunately, all of this interesting subject matter is crippled by distractingly bad CGI effects, low rent dramatic re-creations and shoddy editing. The graphic for a burst of hysterical strength is essentially a Visible Human model getting hit by lightning bolts against a glowing purple backdrop. And while this same graphic looks a little better when it’s demonstrating how snakes kill their victims, by the time it’s demonstrating how what you look like buried alive, it’s gotten kind of old. Dramatizations of episodes like bear attacks are strobelit, shaken camera affairs that are more comical than intimidating, inducing cringes for all the wrong reasons.

Primal Fear also suffers from some lazy editing. It switches narrative gears without warning, using ham-fisted segues that resemble PowerPoint presentations. Even more infuriatingly, the DVD is presented with commercial breaks intact. And as with any media that relies on a group of interviews for expert testimony, the interview subjects, doctors, professors and expert witnesses vary widely in their level of comfort on screen.

The covering of a lot of different fears results in a plethora of interesting information on display, but the context of it suffers. Certainly, there’s something to be said for a film in which you can learn something about smilodons, the French revolution, the Devil’s Bible, rat physiology, the Victorian fad of safety coffins and modern virtual reality treatments for mental trauma. But this broad focus costs the film time that could be devoted to really exploring the nature of fear, how it makes us tick, and other deeper questions that are never addressed.

For instance, what is it about being afraid that gets us off? Why do we now, through roller coasters, slasher flicks and survival horror video games, actively seek out a sensation that was designed to warn us of our probable imminent demise? What is it about fear that has turned it into a thriving industry? The filmmakers do themselves and their audience a disservice by turning away from these deeper questions.

While Primal Fear shows promise as a study of why our fears are so important, it squanders it’s potential, providing only shallow snapshots of some of the many things that scare us. Eventually, the film simply comes to feel like a slideshow of misery, a sort of terrible America’s Funniest Home Videos. Putting the world’s most horrible natural disasters, nightclub fires, mine collapses and animal attacks on display is more emotionally manipulative than genuinely informative. And expert testimony on suffocation, drowning and burning to death quickly comes to seem ghoulish.

It’s a shame that a film that could have been an intriguing exploration of a misunderstood and elemental human emotion becomes, through the squeamishness and seeming disinterest of the filmmakers, a pallid, PG rated Faces of Death that seeks to simultaneously shock and inform, but ultimately fails at both.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.