Filmmaker Rodney Ascher had some time to talk to me about his short subject The S From Hell, the film about the Screen Gems logo that left quite a few children of the 1960s so traumatized that I’m surprised there weren’t lawsuits! It was just a freakish logo that looked ominous and had an electronic soundtrack (provided by Eric Siday) that freaked-out a generation of unsuspecting young people that were in their homes watching Bewitched, The Flintstones, The Monkees, or I Dream of Jeannie (It appeared at the end of those programs–Back in the day, TV shows used to have endings with logos. “Sit, Ubu, sit!” at the end of Family Ties was an example in the ’80s).
Rodney also has a similar upcoming feature-length film titled Room 237 about viewers of the horror classic The Shining that is currently being touted on the festival circuit and is being planned for a theatrical release at the end of the year.
CM: I was very happy to stumble upon your short film The S From Hell! I was looking up the Screen Gems logo by itself, and I came upon the film, and was amazed to find that other people besides me had been startled, even traumatized by that logo on TV many years ago!
Rodney: A lot of people were surprised and kind of comforted to hear that they weren’t the only ones.
CM: What made you decide to do a short film about the subject?
Rodney: Well, just because I was sort of fascinated by it. I used to go on this one guy’s web diary, where he was talking about his experiences with his childhood fear, and the logo really struck a chord with me. I don’t think I was as affected as strongly as this guy, but I certainly got this really visceral memory of being 3 years old, parked in front of the TV for hours and hours and hours, being sort of confused and baffled by these little pieces that were exposed between the cracks of the TV shows. I certainly didn’t have the language when I was 3, but I think what I was seeing was the machine code underneath the TV! [laughs] And maybe this was the window between Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched, where for a minute there was a gap, and I could see in that gap this kind of cold robotic machinery behind the TV shows. So, when I was reading this guy’s accounts, I kind of had this intense flashback to it, and since I thought it was interesting to me, I thought it might be interesting to other folks, and then I started talking to other people that felt the same way.
CM: It’s hard when you’re young to go to anyone and talk about anything, but least of all a TV logo! At that age, you don’t know what a synthesizer is! The Eric Siday thing is interesting–His whole story has yet to be told, but it does give you an idea about the way his creativity developed when he went from just doing jazz violin to making electro-acoustic jingles and sounders for radio and TV. For the Screen Gems piece, I’m guessing he used a reversed tape of the violin and tracked it with moog to create that jingle. That particular music had this other-worldly effect that is indescribable. I don’t think he thought about that at the time. He probably just made a standout short piece for hire that was approved by Screen Gems, and the sound quality of the short film of it gives it such a creepy nuance.
Rodney: The logo itself is so simple, cold and mechanical. I think the music and the image were both early examples of minimal, modernist picture and sound, which, for a kid in the late ’60s, early ’70s is new, different, and challenging. For me, besides the scary aspect, it’s also kind of mournful. I’ve been comparing it lately to the sound of the music played at a Martian funeral!
CM: Yeah, it does sort of have this fanfare-ish thing to it! I also don’t think the studio ever thought this music was going to scare anyone. They probably just thought “It stands out! Something that stands out, and it will have our name on it, and people will watch things by Screen Gems!” That’s probably what they were thinking!
Rodney: You can imagine the Don Draper’s of the world who had the meetings with the studios, talking them through each step into making a more contemporary or even futuristic direction. The previous logo was the Columbia torch lady, which is actually still around in different forms. And even the words “Screen Gems” were sort of these ornate, carved letters, so to go so simple, minimal and modernist was a big step!