Friday 12 January 2024

Interview with Robert Ager - By David Kempf

When did you first become interested in writing reviews? And how did you get involved in film analysis?


I had no interest in becoming a reviewer until I began studying my favourite movies in detail to improve my own writing, directing and editing skills. While studying the fine details of Psycho, Alien and The Shining I came across embedded elements communicating themes I didn’t expect. For example, in Psycho many parallels exist between Marion Crane’s fractured reality (she was the shower murder victim) and the fractured reality of Norman Bates. Both characters hear voices, have trouble with romantic attachments that are considered forbidden, and have committed crimes, etc. I came to realize that these deeply embedded themes play on the viewer subconsciously, yet I’d never read about or heard about these themes anywhere in film discussion or literature. I found it all so interesting I just had to share it in a “film analysis” form. It actually ended up pulling me away from making my own films and sent me down a different path.

Tell us about how you started your first YouTube channel. 

As far as I know I was the first to create the film analysis essay format that’s now become a small industry of its own on Youtube. I think it was mid-2007. Youtube was small back then and the content was more organic and user created, instead of the corporate advertising, clickbait platform it’s become now. The only comparison to my work at the time was Red Letter Media, who started their channel around the same time I did, but theirs was a more casual, comedic take on film reviewing.

 Immediately after posting my first Youtube film analysis videos I started getting endless requests for breakdowns of other movies. In taking up those challenges I discovered many more movies had deeper, previously undiscussed layers. Gradually I began to pick up on the broad patterns of symbolic communication that span many film makers’ work. This made it easier and easier to dissect more movies. 

What your favorite genre?

I’m not sure that I have one. I do particularly enjoy genres that facilitate exploration of the surreal dream aspects of the unconscious – sci-fi and horror are great for this, but also the surrealism of David Lynch. Having said that, such exploration can be done in straight drama too, but the narrative requirements to make the story seem “realistic” can be limiting. Deviate too far and drama audiences frown upon it. The one genre I always couldn’t stand was musicals, but in recent years I’ve begun to take a keen interest in those because they deviate from reality into fantasies of the unconscious too. I’ve not made a many videos on it, but would like to.

Why do you think horror movies and books remain so popular?

We humans struggle to deal with the brutal, merciless aspects of physical reality and the parallel brutal, merciless aspects of our own psyche. The inner brutality is a necessary part of ourselves for dealing with the brutality that threatens us from outside. This inner and outer brutality is a colossal source of anxiety so, when our immediate circumstances don’t require a violent response, we suppress our awareness of inner and outer brutality. It mostly relieves us of our anxiety, but that anxiety surfaces in subtle ways and especially in our dreams.

One way we cope with our suppressed awareness is through fictional stories, in which we can explore and process brutality, while maintaining conscious dissociation. In a fiction story the violence is happening to “someone else” in a “different time and place”. This is evident in young children’s bed time stories, featuring violent threats in the wilderness such as the big bad wolf, the wicked witch and so on. It allows kids to learn about violence and danger in a way that causes minimal direct anxiety.

The horror genre in books and movies is the adult version of this process. Isolation, disease, sadism, murder, deception and a myriad of other anxiety-laden aspects of reality can be explored in their most extreme forms in fictional horror, not just through direct showing of a simulated experience, but using the surrealistic language of the unconscious.

Clive Barker’s classic Hellraiser, for example, explores the dark sadistic aspect of sexuality that’s present in all humans. The Cenobyte villains of the film are dressed in the kind of S&M bondage gear that are marketed and purchased on a mass scale in modern society, but literally hidden from the world in the privacy of closets. The film takes this sexual violence to extreme forms, but in a magical framing similar to childrens’ fantasy stories. If Hellraiser lacked the magical framing and was presented realistically audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it emotionally and the film would lose its power to communicate.

This is the eternal power of horror. It allows us to explore and process our most extreme anxieties and urges in a form we can consciously cope with.

What inspires your review choices and topics?

Mostly, I watch films casually for enjoyment and escapism. Occasionally a particular film will play on my mind for a long period after watching it, sometimes recurring in my mind for days, but I don’t know why. This I find is generally is an indicator that the film has played with me subliminally, whether the film makers intended it or not (often film makers don’t even consciously understand why they have an urge to make a film about a particular subject, but they feel compelled).

While thinking about the film that’s affected me, I sometimes stumble across some realization about the plot or whatever, something I didn’t have words for earlier. Other times I consciously go back and watch the film again, paying closer attention to identify whatever it was that affected me.

I’ve tried using the approach of selecting a film in advance for analysis rather than the film selecting me, but I usually don’t feel very inspired doing it that way.

What do you think the difference between American horror and British horror is?

Well, there’s so much to explore on that topic.

I can’t say a lot about modern British and US horror because I think there’s no major modern difference between the two. They’ve both become incredibly generic on the whole, falling back on the same old rehashed themes, metaphors and presentation. Aside from the work of Ari Aster, I think horror has been a largely dead genre for some years.

However, I’d say traditional American and British horror differ in some important ways, largely based upon cultural differences. British society, especially in the South and the middle and upper classes, is much more psychologically repressed than the North part of the UK and also much more repressed than US culture, at least in relation to sex and violence. Poverty tends to expose people to actual violence, hence my own upbringing in Liverpool hasn’t led so much to that type of repression. I gave the example of Hellraiser to a previous question and here it’s relevant again. Clive Barker is British, but crucially he is from my home town of Liverpool. I consider this a major factor in his willingness to explore the darkest depths of the psyche. Apparently Barker, who is gay, spent some time in New York too, another city too brutal for upper class repressed types. In New York, Barker was exposed to the darker elements of the New York gay sub-culture scene at the time and I believe this also led to the extreme sexual horror of Hellraiser.

By the way, an interesting theory about serial murder in Britain in past centuries is that, as part of the mass denial process, such murders would be attributed to symbolic supernatural sources – werewolves, witches and vampires. To an extent this still goes on today. Serial killers still get literally called “monsters”, a verbal way of classing them as a separate species to the rest of us.

Basically, a lot of traditional British horror was presented in a toned down, more subtle form, fitting with the psychological needs of a more consciously sensitive audience that’s not as willing to acknowledge inner or outer brutality. In the US, class divisions aren’t as culturally strong as the UK, so horror violence is more visceral. More blood is shown, more mutilation, more screams of terror or agony. And it may relate to the US having had a more violent history on its own soil in recent centuries – the wild west.

Incidentally, Japanese horror of recent decades has been fascinating in that I think it marries together the British suppression element and the US visceral element. Maybe it’s an expression of how Japanese culture simultaneously features the two mentalities. I think we see similar in Samurai stories – traits of honour, respect and humility are jarringly present in Samurai characters who are angry, sadistic and vengeful. Their screen presentations of Ninja are fascinating in this aspect too.

Back to your question, there’s another element at work that seems to be more prevalent in modern US horror. Again it leads to more visceral on screen violence, but the motive is different. The raw desire of the film maker to make an easy buck through media attention is, for some reason, stronger in the US. This is a major factor that’s led to the “torture-porn” genre – the Saw franchise etc.

Back in the 1980’s western populations were becoming increasingly aware of the serial killer phenomenon – and the number of serial killer cases seemed to be on the increase due to various factors (too much to go into here). The idea of being abducted and tortured to death by a serial killer is one of the most potent fears in the human psyche. And so, as more literature and media coverage of such cases occurred from the 1960’s through to the 80’s, the public needed to psychologically deal with that. I believe this led to the “slasher” and “video nasty” genres of the 80’s. It was a way for the public to psychologically process the very real horror of serial murder. It served its purpose and a lot of the more crude, cash-in movies of the genre have appropriately faded. But the movies that explored the subject in more artistic and psychologically potent ways have lasted – the first Nightmare On Elm Street, Silence of the Lambs, Halloween etc.

After the serial killer genre of screen horror ran its course horror didn’t seem to know what to do with itself. That’s where Japanese horror stepped in, combining visceral violence with psychological subtlety, but that seemed to run its course too. Since then we’ve been stuck with jump scare garbage horror and the continuation of “torture porn”.

What are your favorite horror books?

I don’t read many horror books, but I was a big fan of Stephen King’s IT when it was released. Neither of the film versions have come close to the movie I had in my head from reading that book. I’m also a big fan of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (the latter is so much better than the trashy movie version). 

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

Mainly the ones I review – Carpenter’s version of The Thing, Poltergeist, The Shining, Hellraiser etc. The Thing is my fave horror movie of all time.


Do you think what we don’t see is actually scarier in a horror movie than graphic gore?

Ok, this is an important subject, so I’ll answer at length with a specific modern movie in mind.

Last year I saw Terrifier 2, which I consider an unfortunate example of where future horror might be going. I watched the film because I’d heard it made prominent use of practical physical special effects instead of CGI and was quite brutal. The film certainly delivered in terms of high quality practical effects - the writer / director himself was the talent behind this. But unfortunately, the director’s motives are of a brand I find repulsive. I did take the time to watch a lengthy interview with him on Youtube and he seems like an intelligent guy with a lot of potential to make some great films, but he openly explains that he wants to push the boundaries of what kind of torture can be shown on screen. To me this is a shallow, cash-in motive that disrespects the audience and the role of horror fiction in the common psyche.

The Terrifier 2 movie itself is severely lacking in plot or interesting characters. The script exists solely as an excuse to show frequent scenes of sadistic violence to draw attention from a modern horror community starved of decent horror. The director is skilled at creating gore, both in terms of effects and his direction and editing of the scenes, but the level of on screen sadism I think is irresponsible. In one part of the film a teenage girl is savagely tortured across a span of three scenes. The killer pours bleach and salt into her wounds, among other forms of sadism, which isn’t a demonstration of special effects skill – it reveals the immaturity of the film maker. I’m surprised censors didn’t globally step in on this one, as they would with some perceived “hate speech” factor. There’s also great emotional sadism in the film as this merciless torture of a teenager is witnessed by the girl’s own Mother.

With Terrifier 2 the film maker takes the attitude of “I’ve got the guts to show you what other horror directors wont”, but he also consciously avoids showing any rape or sexual sadism in the film’s most depraved slaying because he knows it would get the film banned or would offend audiences and put them off his work. Yet he shows sexual sadism towards a male in a later scene, but the details are kept off screen. So the film isn’t as daring as the director wants us to believe it is..

Unfortunately, the director also expresses a desire to show violent sadism toward children, but never quite crosses the line. As well as the teenage girl, in one scene a boy of about fourteen has chunks of flesh bitten out of his ankle. And in an earlier scene the killer uses a gun to shoot and kill a room full of children in a playpen, but the children are played by adult actors dressed as toddlers in a Lynchian type dream sequence. It’s like the director wanted to show kids being killed for shock and controversy, but has chickened out of fully doing so.

So the director isn’t really willing to go to the worst extremes of violence present in real life cases, such as the sadism of Bittaker and Norris, the “Toolbox killers” of the 1970’s. The details of their crimes were so utterly horrific that not only do we not see any such equivalent in screen horror, but those details are largely kept out of general public discussion, even in print. I learned about some of it while researching Silence of the Lambs, which led me to consult some academic sources not on public record. I’ve never told anyone what I learned about the horrors of that case as I wouldn’t want to burden anyone with the knowledge.

As a counter to Terrifier 2, the Australian movie Snowtown is more disturbing and realistic and far more intelligent. That movie really rides the line in terms of showing sadism, in fact it arguably crosses the line, but interestingly Snowtown hasn’t become part of “classic horror movie” culture. It doesn’t make it onto best horror movie lists and isn’t even called “horror” in film review literature. I think this is because Snowtown serves a purpose that’s the opposite of sensationalism. The movie does not allow the audience to enjoy the violence at all. It’s showing us how depraved we can become if we allow feelings of hate and revenge to overwhelm our psyche and it shows how the desperate desire for perceived social justice can lead us into becoming the monsters we claim to be fighting. In the case of Snowtown, which is based on real events, I think the level of onscreen violence was required to get the message across, though I’m still of two minds as to whether the censors should have stepped in.

I’m not a proponent of censorship generally, but I think there are limits to what should be shown and my concern is that lack of creativity, lack of maturity, and the desperation to make money will lead horror film makers down this ever-increasing form of torture-porn. It’s not the direction modern horror should go.

Instead horror film makers need to study more psychology and how it manifests in the modern world. Modern anxieties around subjects such as internet culture, lockdowns, increasingly desperate party politics, terrorism, A.I. and plastic surgery are rife with potential for representation in symbolic screen horror forms, but to do a good job of it requires the film maker to learn about such subjects to the point where they actually have some genuine insights worth communicating. I think too few film makers are willing to do that kind of challenging research.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

The transition from being an emotionally messed up teenager carrying a lot of trauma and severe lack of self-confidence to developing a powerful new understanding of the human psyche (both my own and other people’s) through persistent research and risk-taking experimentation. This took years and has been the underpinning of everything else I’ve done since from mental health work to film making to video essays to independent journalism to programming / game design (my current major project). The Youtube film analysis is what I’m largely known for, but that’s just one of many outlets.

Do you have any advice for new reviewers?

For reviewers of films? Yes, make some films yourself so you get familiar with the process – learn to write, direct, produce and edit. Even if it’s just short films, you’ll be a much better film reviewer for it. It’s essential.

Tell us about your own experiences with filmmaking. 

I made a handful of short films and a feature film between around 2003 / 2012. I never had any illusion the films would be properly distributed as I lacked the physical equipment to meet industry technical standards. I did it for the learning experience and I learned fast and in more ways than expected. Without it my current film analysis work wouldn’t exist.

Any hope I had of getting into the film industry itself was quickly sapped when I encountered the soulless bureaucracy and propaganda-motivated nature of British film-funding. I decided I wanted nothing to do with it and that any films I make will always have to be under my own complete control – I get final say on script, editing, marketing, everything. To me it’s the only way worth working. Unfortunately it makes funds far more difficult to acquire. One day I may go back to making my own films, but right now I’m busy with parenting and other projects in different arenas.

What are your current projects?

I’m about to release my first video game, called To The Death, having taken up programming about six months ago. I’m very excited about this as it’s given me a new avenue of creativity, has developed a new branch of technical skills, and I’m already very pleased with the game. It’s intensely playable. If someone else released it I’d definitely buy a copy. The game might get expanded into a story mode, which I’ve partially mapped out already, and if does it’ll be as sophisticated as anything else I’ve done.

Aside from that I have my first book on film analysis mostly written and intend to finish and publish that after releasing the video game. I’m currently taking a break from Youtube film analysis as I’ve been at it for over fifteen years.

Please in your own words, write a paragraph about yourself & your work. 

Non-academic, psychology writer / researcher, film maker, film analyst, artist, programmer / game designer, independent thinker and Father. From Liverpool, England. Mostly known for my film analysis work at

You can also check out Rob on Youtube at