Written & Directed by Kyle Edward Ball
When you are a child, a dark house can be the most foreboding thing in the world. Something that was once familiar in the daylight becomes absolutely nightmarish when the sun sets. As you grow into an understanding of the world, those fears subside and are replaced with more “adult” anxieties. Yet, something remains in the back of your head. Some cold autumn night when you have to go down into the basement, or you wake up and need to use the restroom down a blackened hallway, those childhood terrors begin slithering back from the corners of your mind. This is the atmosphere that Kyle Edward Ball is attempting to invoke with his experimental horror feature Skinamarink.
The narrative here is loose, almost non-existent, because Ball understands horror rises out of our emotions, not intellect. Kaylee and Kevin are siblings who wake up in the middle of the night and think to sneak downstairs and watch some cartoons. Fairly quickly, they realize something is wrong, and after searching the house, they realize their parents are missing. Even more troubling, all the windows and exterior doors are gone. The house is one big box. Then small objects vanish in front of their eyes, and before they know it, the children are aware of a predatory presence. This may look like their home, but it is a massive decoy created by something beyond description where it can stalk and devour the kids.
The way Ball films his movie makes all the difference in the world. If this had been a standard, bland Blumhouse affair, then Skinamarink would be forgettable. However, Ball chooses angles that hide action. The camera may be pointed at the top of a door frame as we hear the children walk down a hallway, boards creaking. Almost every shot is static, carefully framed to reveal or obscure detail. Sound design becomes vital to engage with the picture, especially when the siblings are sitting in the glow of the television screen and begin hearing creaks and doors opening upstairs.
The method Ball employs causes the house to feel like a constantly shifting, indefinable space. I immediately thought of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and its Navidson Record, a transcript of footage shot in a haunted living house. I don’t think that book could ever be made into a movie, but if you enjoy the mood it sets, then Skinamarink comes the closest I’ve ever seen to visually capturing it. If you do not like slow-burning horror, then you will despise this movie as it is about the slowest burn I’ve experienced with a picture. But, after watching several experimental features, you come to expect this. Always carry this reminder: Film is a visual medium, so something like Skinamarink exemplifies the true power of art. We do not need to know character backstories or have a prologue that sets up the conditions of the narrative. The movie operates in the same way David Lynch’s pieces work; it is about being intuitive, going with your emotional truth over making sense of character arcs.
Since the Blair Witch Project, there has been a concerted effort by a cluster of filmmakers to try and push that type of storytelling further. I have never been a fan of the Blair Witch and its sequels, but Skinamarink ultimately won me over. A moment occurs about midway through the picture, one of the single most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. It involves one of the children being implored to look under the bed multiple times, and with each iteration, my blood ran colder & colder. Ball should be applauded for taking emotions he felt palpably as a child and translating them into film so perfectly that the audience experiences the sheer terror with him.
It’s not all standing ovations, though. Skinamarink is too long, coming in at an hour and forty-minute runtime. It drags in specific points, and I think Ball spends too much time in the stillness, letting the tension build so that it fizzles out before the release. I would have liked to see this cut down to an intense hour. That feels like it would have given enough room to build the narrative and set the atmosphere without resulting in a sense that the picture had outstayed its welcome. The third act is perfection, though; it’s just a shame it took so long to get there. Ball throws some absolutely striking visuals at the audience, finally letting any sense of material reality shatter. The predator circles his prey, and it is unnerving. We never see harm done to a child, but we certainly hear it. I love that the director went there with a more sedate, comforting ending that would have been easy to deliver. Instead, he chooses the more difficult path, and the film is all the better for it.
Skinamarink is now a movie I will point to as an example of how horror should feel. The genre is, at its core, about emotions, not rational. Our fears, as we often realize, are not founded on reason. They are part of vestigial memories linked to our ancestors’ survival and the result of overactive imaginations that seek to find shape & meaning in the darkness. If you are up for it, this is one of the most potent movie experiences you can have in 2022. It’s far away from the mind-numbing multiplex sensory overloads or Netflix made-for-tv shlock. Skinamarink is ruthless, and I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this picture and not feeling something.