When I was young, I hated the nighttime. It wasn’t that it was dark; it was that the house seemed different. Creaks in the floorboards were deafening, and the house felt like it was breathing at times. But, of course, the inability to see anything, the otherwise quiet atmosphere, and my sleep being interrupted so I could wander the house looking for a glass of water ultimately heightened the ambiance that was always there. I have never thought about it much since then, especially since I now live in an apartment in the city where noise is commonplace, and it’s hard for anywhere to be completely dark thanks to light pollution.
However, upon watching Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, memories of darkness falling and the house coming alive were dredged up and weaponized. It’s not the kind of movie you typically get to experience (think The Blair Witch Project’s final shot stretched into a feature-length film, and you’re about there), and it’s one that almost demands turning the lights off if you’re watching it at home. Skinamarink’s atmosphere is the movie, and while it moves through its runtime at a languid pace, it’s always offering some new mystery that terrifies almost as much as it intrigues. The horror seeps in once you engage with the film’s minimalist design and allow yourself to be transported to the film’s setting of 1995 and occupy the headspace of two children whose parents have disappeared and find the house is not the comfortable place it once was.
Skinamarink works as fuel for nightmares because it’s never quite clear what’s happening and what is supposed to be terrifying. As a result, everything is scary. Kevin and Kaylee (played by Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault, respectively) wake up in the middle of the night to find they are home alone, unaware of the whereabouts of their parents. They settle in front of the CRT television with nothing but the light from the cartoons illuminating the room but restlessness and worry slowly take root, and they begin exploring the house, trying to find answers. At every turn, more mysterious occurrences happen, and the house’s quiet becomes consumed by an overwhelming sense of dread.
Shot to look like celluloid that would have been used at the time for something like a home movie, and on a shoestring budget of $15,000, Ball makes incredibly potent decisions concerning how to present the film that gives Skinamarink a uniquely frightening aesthetic. Faces are rarely seen, and the camera can remain completely still for an extended period – not unlike the Paranormal Activity films – as if it’s trying to tell you that something’s about to happen. Likewise, the grain over the image makes staring at a pitch-black frame appear like something is moving within the darkness.
Then there is the house itself, which brings back memories with its wood paneling and toys strewn all over the place, making it a character unto itself. After all, the house seems to be changing in ways it never did before, as if it has come to life. Objects move and disappear as if they were never where you thought they were anyways. It almost feels like the house becomes an alternate universe at night. All the set dressing amounts to a film that embraces its setting as a familiar, comfortable place and then turns it into a wealth of nightmares.
The hang-up with Skinamarink is that it asks the audience a lot because it does not clearly lay out its story, instead letting the narrative and source of terror come naturally. It does, however, establish the film’s stakes immediately and succinctly. There’s a good portion of the film where you merely take in the atmosphere as tiny nuggets of information are occasionally offered up. But, eventually, it comes together, and the waiting game pays off. It works to significant effect, though, burrowing itself into your head and finding just where to nestle itself and take root, just as it does on the children themselves.
There’s a lot to be said about Skinamarink’s minimalist aesthetic that might turn off viewers who consume films with a phone in hand. I can’t imagine Ball’s film working as effectively with the lights turned on or the brightness of a second screen in anyone’s peripheral vision. A theater setting even feels slightly detrimental, not because someone might break the immersion with the sound of a popcorn bag rustling or their phone buzzing, but because Skinamarink’s horror is direct. It’s like an evil force is forcing you to witness its power and asking you to submit to its terror personally. Few films reward the viewer as much as this, and Skinamarink will stick with you longer than you’d like, thanks to its unique, uncompromising, and haunting vision.