It’s been a while since there’s been something like Skinamarink in theaters. Check that: There has never, in mankind’s history of recorded images on film, been something quite like Skinamarink in theaters. The temptation would be to correlate the release of this zero-budget piece of experimental horror with the likes of Paranormal Activity in 2009, but Paranormal Activity, for all its lo-fi found footage trappings, was still a conventional (but cleverly constructed) narrative. When it comes to Skinamarink, on the other hand, convention flies out the window. This is a daring, unsettling, inscrutable and at times deeply boring venture into the farthest boundaries of horror esotericism, utterly unlike anything that most viewers will have ever seen before. If someone hosted a filmmaking competition where the stated goal was to engineer a work as divisive as it possibly could be, surely Skinamarink would be a shoo-in to win the grand prize.
Created on a budget of $15,000 (Canadian!) as the feature debut of filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball, and dedicated to assistant director Joshua Bookhalter, who passed away during post-production, Skinamarink is an exercise in experimental, sensory-driven horror filmmaking. Now, when one says “sensory-driven” in this context, one might expect that to imply a certain lushness that overwhelms the senses, a la James Cameron’s approach in Avatar: The Way of Water. Skinamarink, however, is more like the opposite—the film’s ultra grainy visual aesthetic and muddy audio (with cleverly hardcoded subtitles) slowly but surely hypnotizes the viewer into a state of heightened suggestibility, until the viewer’s mind begins to provide its own hallucinatory meaning to what it is seeing. In the same sense that a sensory deprivation chamber often provokes spontaneous images and sounds in a human brain struggling to make connections without stimuli, so Skinamarink sweeps you away to your own private nightmare. Assuming you don’t fall asleep, that is.
That’s the thing with Skinamarink—it’s going to be experienced in vastly different ways by each viewer, dependent upon factors such as innate suggestibility, attention span and the context of its screening. One can’t have a conversation with a friend during Skinamarink and hope for it to have the intended effect. One can’t watch the film in a room flooded by light, or between furtive glances at a smartphone. It just doesn’t work that way, any more than a guided meditation would work with constant interruptions. Skinamarink demands you surrender yourself to its particular style of somnambulistic viewing, preferably in a pitch black room … by yourself, while anyone else in the house is asleep. That’s the setting that will best allow the film to get its claws in you, gripping with the exhilaration of tension and terror that all true horror geeks are forever chasing, but rarely succeed in locating.
Ostensibly, Skinamarink is about a pair of siblings: four-year-old Kevin and six-year-old Kaylee. They live in an unassuming little house with their unseen father, with the status of Mom a veiled mystery that hints at pain and separation. One night, they awake to find that the house seems changed—doors and windows have disappeared, and any parental presence is missing. Objects are strewn around in seeming patterns, while a deep, gargling voice whispers from the darkness. The only light is provided by the ever-present glow of the TV set, playing a loop of public domain cartoons from the 1930s. We’re informed that the year is “1995,” though that piece of context seems entirely without meaning or importance to the hazy events captured on screen. Rather, it’s merely intended as an invitation for the presumed millennial horror viewer to thrust themselves back in time to the consciousness of their childhood self, to revisit locked-away feelings from a time when one’s brain is anything but fully formed.
And for 100 minutes, that’s the grand total of what Skinamarink provides. “Oneiric” is the most perfect single word for the experience. Its images are like watching closed circuit security camera footage of someone’s mental projections during a fever dream. Its sounds recall things heard in the dead of the night from a childhood bedroom, and then blissfully forgotten by morning, only to be recalled in a moment of terror decades later. It’s less a feature film, and more like a museum exhibit that would be running on a 24-hour-a-day loop in a dark, blank room. At every step of the way, it seemingly strives to detach itself from convention. Only rarely do its shots even reflect the actual POV of the two children, as one might expect. Instead, the majority of the film unfolds across fixed shots from strange angles, with its characters only heard and never fully seen—ankle-hugging shots of dark corners, or ceilings, or toys, or hallways. You’re drowning in a sea of fuzz for 20 minutes at a time, and Skinamarink refuses to throw a life preserver.
Make no mistake, the film’s plodding is by intention, daring the audience to object. That such a stylistic oddity would be getting any kind of theatrical release this weekend at all is frankly mind blowing—amazing to consider at a time when well-crafted, accessible, well-reviewed genre movies such as Prey have often been confined to streaming services. Will there be people who purchase a ticket this weekend, only to walk out after 10 minutes of Skinamarink, absolutely befuddled and demanding refunds? There absolutely will be. And I won’t be able to deny those viewers when they say that the film has absolutely no need to stretch an interminable, pretentious 100 minutes. There’s no doubt in my mind that you could achieve the same effect with 80 minutes. Or 60 minutes. Or 40 minutes. Or probably less, honestly. On the other hand, I also won’t be able to refute the viewer who calls Skinamarink the most terrifying thing they’ve seen in a decade, because I can conceive of the right combination of setting and mental conditioning for the film to live up to those lofty words. Perhaps more than anything I’ve ever seen, this is the ultimate subjective horror film.
With that said, it’s rather concerning to me on some level to see the effusive praise and rapt awe that Skinamarink managed to generate among internet horror geeks and armchair film critics in the last few months after it initially leaked online, particularly in the seeming urge to praise the film as a cutting edge alternative to the dour, overwrought era of so-called elevated horror. Casting the esoteric experience of Skinamarink as “true horror” seems to imply that it’s something that should invite more replication and imitation, when in reality it’s such a singular experience that I can’t help but feel its capacity to inspire other works should inherently be limited. In the same manner that The Blair Witch Project once cast a very specific pallor over its genre, so too should Skinamarink stand alone. Suffice to say, you shouldn’t want imitation of this. Skinamarink is not a newly unlocked evolution of the horror genre; it’s a daring aberration that will grow less effective the more it is referenced. Filmmakers should be going out of their way to resist the urge to craft “the next Skinamarink.”
I look forward to watching the wider world discover Skinamarink as the film hits theaters this weekend, feeling for all purposes as if they’ve blundered into a parallel dimension. Like the titular child of The Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost,” they’ll watch as a familiar place becomes a seeming prison, bound by dream logic, boundless and empty. I certainly won’t forget it.
Director: Kyle Edward Ball
Writer: Kyle Edward Ball
Starring: Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault, Ross Paul, Jaime Hill
Release Date: January 13, 2023
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.