Made for just $15,000 by a first-time filmmaker, this unsettling experimental horror flick will get inside your head.
January 16, 2023
Age may instil nocturnal bravery in most of us, stopping the flinching and wincing at things that routinely go bump, thump and jump in the night in our ordinary homes, but the childhood feeling of lying awake in the dark with shadows, shapes and strange sounds haunting an eerie void never seeps from memory. Close your eyes, cast your mind back, and the unsettling and uncertain sensation can easily spring again — that's how engrained it is. Or, with your peepers wide open, you could just watch new micro-budget Canadian horror movie Skinamarink. First-time feature filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball has even made this breakout hit, which cost just $15,000 to produce, in the house he grew up in. His characters: two kids, four-year-old Kevin (debutant Lucas Paul) and six-year-old Kaylee (fellow newcomer Dali Rose Tetreault), who wake up deep into the evening. The emotion he's trading in: pure primal dread, because to view this digitally shot but immensely grainy-looking flick is to be plunged back to a time when nightmares lingered the instant that the light switched off.
Skinamarink does indeed jump backwards, meeting Kevin and Kaylee in 1995 when they can't find their dad (Ross Paul, Moby Dick) or mum (Jaime Hill, Give and Take) after waking. But, befitting a movie that's an immersive collage of distressing and disquieting images and noises from the get-go, it also pulsates with an air of being trapped in time. It takes its name from a nonsense nursery-rhyme song from 1910, then includes cartoons from the 1930s on Kevin and Kaylee's television to brighten up the night's relentless darkness. In its exacting, hissing sound design especially, it brings David Lynch's 1977 debut Eraserhead to mind. And the influence of 1999's The Blair Witch Project and the 2007-born Paranormal Activity franchise is just as evident, although Skinamarink is far more ambient, experimental and experiential. Ball has evolved from crafting YouTube shorts inspired by online commenters' worst dreams to this: his own creepypasta.
Driven more by mood than story — sleepwalking more than driven, perhaps — Skinamarink sees its two pint-sized protagonists react to their parents' absence by embracing a childhood staple: camping out in front of the TV, where those animated shows play, with cereal, blankets and toys to help comfort them. It isn't Saturday morning, though, and they can hear odd noises echoing from the floor above. Also, those cartoons seem to be looping. Plus, this unnerving spin on Home Alone also involves doors and windows vanishing in glitches, then the toilet disappearing. Household items, such as chairs, dolls and video tapes, suddenly become attached to the ceiling and walls as well. And, amid the ASMR-style whispering that the film's central siblings utter at each other, there's a disconcerting voice attempting to get Kaylee to venture upstairs into her parents' bedroom — and to do the one thing that kids know they shouldn't at night, aka look under the bed.
Has something horrific happened, leaving Skinamarink's two tots on their lonesome? Is this a case of parental neglect, abandonment or abuse? Has divorce disrupted the family unit ("I don't want to talk about mom," Kaylee says at one point), and this is the fraught and fractured aftermath? Or, are supernatural forces — demonic even — at work? Is it just panic, but in that innocent-minded way where everything seems scarier and more catastrophic in a young brain and heart that trusts in its guardians as a main source of comfort, safety and protection? And why is there no end to the agitated night, and to the accompanying atmosphere of fright? Writing plus directing, and leaning on first-time cinematographer Jamie McRae heavily, Ball lets all these questions and thoughts flow through his disorientated audience's heads.
As Skinamarink sparks queries but gleefully eschews clearcut answers, saying that it sees Kevin and Kaylee isn't quite accurate. The slow-cinema effort does indeed focus on two kids alone at night when weird things occur, but that narrative summary can't cut to the movie's heart without being paired with a description of how the picture tells its tale. An exercise in precise framing and just-as-meticulous editing, it flits between patient glimpses around the potentially haunted house, all at angles as off-kilter as the events being captured. The feature peers ahead from low to the ground, mimicking a preschooler sitting — or stares upwards, spotting what someone with their eyes trained at the ceiling while they can't sleep might. It cycles between shots frequently, with little in the way of logic. And, in these barely lit snippets, faces are non-existent. Rather, legs and backs place people in sight, any glance someone's way feeling stolen, surreptitious and another signal that all isn't right.
Even in its most blatant examples, and even exploring existential themes applicable to us all as the whole genre repeatedly does, horror flicks have always been a Rorschach test. What upsets one person when it's splashed across a screen mightn't raise a goosebump in another — but Skinamarink takes that concept a step further, building it into the entire process of watching its artificially grained-up imagery. Plenty that lurks in this always-flickering film is dim, fuzzy and hardly distinguishable. Scattered Lego blocks, a toddler's chatter telephone, corners of walls and ceilings, narrow hallways, fragments on the TV screen: they're among the movie's most distinctive visuals. What else one makes out in the coloured static is often up to them, although Ball does deploy some shots as jump scares. He uses the same approach to audio as well, with parts of the sparse dialogue indecipherable and almost inaudible, and not all of it earning on-screen subtitles.
Most viewers of Skinamarink likely won't be watching it in their own childhood homes, but Ball wants to transport his audience there anyway: flailing around in the dark, hazily unsure of what's happening or why, stress stretched far further than one would like, and firmly anxious and alarmed. His film smartly understands how our imaginations can conjure up our biggest fears from nothing but the unknown, and gets ample mileage out of putting that idea into practice. And, when it can be seen in dark houses, it'd make a spectacular double with fellow recent horror flick We're All Going to the World's Fair. Both get creepy in everyday abodes, reflect upon screens, know the inescapable power of perturbing images, couldn't exist without online horror and feel like festering collective nightmares — insidiously and unshakeably so.