It’s a question that’s been asked by artists from Henry James to Metallica: Are you afraid of the dark? If there’s one thing that children know — and that inner children never forget — it’s that nighttime is its own universe, with its own rules and jurisdiction. As long as you make it out of the basement before the furnace turns on, or pull the blanket over your head until the creaking in the wall stops, you’ll be alright. Or you could linger a minute, or peek over the covers, or try whispering into the darkness to see if anybody answers. There’s nothing stopping you. But you’d better not.
Enter Kyle Edward Ball’s directorial debut Skinamarink, a new horror movie reportedly made for $15,000 Canadian and shot in the filmmaker’s home in Edmonton, Alberta. Horror has always been the genre most conducive to scrappy, less-is-more moviemaking: its history is a tale of filmmakers vaulting over modest budgets and expectations, from the thrifty zombie fictions of George A. Romero to the weaponized negative space of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. One way of looking at it is that there’s a logical — and often profitable — relationship between the limitations of independent filmmaking and our collective fears of the unknown; both are truisms that require artists and their audiences to use their imaginations. Another is that horror, as a repository of extremes — of bodies, minds and souls pushed out of comfort zones and beyond their limits — is uniquely conducive to hype.
So, to get it out of the way: Skinamarink is not the scariest movie of all time. But it is a notable entry in the micro-budget creep-out pantheon, as well as the latest in a recent cycle of what might be called Extremely Online horror cinema — films that variously visualize, dramatize, or thematize the nightmarish potential of the internet. On this front, Ball’s film is less explicit than Jane Schoenbrun’s acclaimed — and affecting — We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which imagined the relationship between an isolated girl and a mythical, potentially dangerous website, in a scenario straight out of a creepypasta forum. Skinamarink feels more like a supposedly notorious video you might stumble across online and watch, beguiled and bewildered, in the hope that something might eventually happen — that is, until you start hoping that nothing does.
Running a slow 100 minutes and operating entirely according to its own rigorous but unpredictable narrative logic — one predicated on a steady, pressurized mandate of obfuscation and withholding — Skinamarink unfolds as a series of vignettes set in a home under some kind of sustained supernatural occupation. (The dateline, which places the action in 1995, may or may not be an interpretive key, but it accounts for all kinds of subtly retro decor and production design). The entity that’s made its way inside the walls of this modest family home is elusive, omnipresent, ephemeral. The witnesses — or, depending on how you read Ball’s wilfully elliptical scenario, hostages — to its presence are two young children, a brother and sister, neither of whom is old enough to take charge of the situation.
Call it Home Alone-ish: as the film opens, the kids are camping out in the living room, simultaneously pining for and hiding from their parents. In terms of screen time, Ball focuses more on four-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) than six-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), though it’d be hard to call Skinamarink a character study of any kind; we never see the children in close-up, and their whispered dialogue, most of it focused on short-term problem solving (“want some juice?”) is only selectively subtitled. Ditto the intermittent entreaties of the entity, whose voice is always ready to break the silence. The story seemingly takes place over a number of days, and yet morning — and the clarifying arrival of light, whether natural or electrical — never comes. The film was shot digitally but manipulated to give the impression of consumer-grade, analog VHS. Visibility is low and spatial coherence is at a premium. The camera, which mostly stays low to the ground and pans up to look around, privileges the childrens’ point of view — if not literally, than in a metaphysical sense of what it’s like to miss the big picture (or, in one memorably discombobulating sequence, to have one’s world turned upside down).
In its chill, omniscient virtuosity, Skinamarink could almost be a movie willed into being by its otherworldly antagonist.
Whether this approach is exciting or enervating is, of course, a matter of taste, and there’s a history of formally daring horror movies pushing their alienation effects too far, especially when they end up in front of a non-specialized audience. The fact that a movie as oblique as Skinamarink is getting any kind of a commercial release (via IFC Midnight in theaters and VOD on Shudder) seems bizarre, but then it wasn’t until Jason Blum plucked a disc of Paranormal Activity out of screener DVD-pile obscurity that it was seen as anything but a homemade curio. What’s fascinating is that Ball’s film has received most of its momentum via TikTok — not typically considered a hotbed of minimalist cinephilia, but whose youthful, web-savvy constituency has embraced Skinmarink’s MO. In a recent interview with Indiewire, Ball — who runs a YouTube channel that crowd-sources users’ nightmares in the comment section — weighed the benefits of going viral against the extenuating circumstances fueling its online popularity: after festival screenings in Canada this summer, Skinamarink was pirated and shared widely by fans trying to spread the gospel. “Before it was pirated, on Twitter when anyone talked about my movie I would ‘like’ it,” Ball said. “If they did fan art, I’d retweet it. It’s so cool that people are doing fan art! Since it’s been pirated, it’s been difficult, because no filmmaker wants to tsk tsk someone who’s saying, ‘Oh my God, I love your movie.’”
For those so inclined, there is a lot to love about Skinamarink, although I have to admit that I myself watched it with high expectations and a gradually dissipating sense of engagement, even during the frightening passages (of which there are a few). It might seem unfair to suggest that a movie like this is a casualty of its own conceptual and technical rigor, especially when the bridge it offers into authentically avant-garde territory has been built in good faith. Ball’s technique is ingenious, but in sticking to his guns he often risks shooting himself in the foot. He’s so committed to his own vision, and so determined to make us meet him on his own terms, that we detach from the characters — who, for all their aching vulnerability (and the endearingly lispy vocal performances of the actors) are really just ciphers anyway — and focus on the directorial choices. There’s plenty to be scared of, but not really anyone to be scared for; emotion is sacrificed on the altar of affect. In fact, in its chill, omniscient virtuosity, Skinamarink could almost be a movie willed into being by its otherworldly antagonist, a connection that’s made grimly palpable in the final shot.
Which, by the way, is a killer — the sort of image that camps out in the dark corners of your mind. It also raises more questions than it answers. Like any good showman, Ball understands the relationship between saving the best for last and leaving your audience wanting more. Ambiguity is at the heart of most successful horror filmmaking, and Skinamarink is enigmatic enough that people already on its wavelength will probably want — or feel compelled — to watch it a second time and see what materializes out of the murk.