Skinamarink Review – IGN

Skinamarink hit theaters earlier this year and is now streaming on Shudder.

An experiment that ends up lesser than the sum of its parts, Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink is unlike any other horror film to play outside of indie and arthouse theaters for quite some time – perhaps since The Blair Witch Project in 1999. This contained, Canadian-made movie takes an avant-garde approach to its story, one of young children who find themselves trapped alone in their darkened home with no way to leave. Occasionally, it transforms this creepy scenario into the stuff of nightmares thanks to its visual aesthetic, which mimics an old-fashioned analog film camera left running for long, unbroken stretches; even its POV shots resemble “found footage.” However, its biggest weakness is the way it breaks its own lingering tension with deflating startles and jump scares – a disappointingly traditional recurrence for a film that’s otherwise so novel.

Ball, who also edited the film, runs the YouTube channel Bitesized Nightmares, and he puts his penchant for the esoteric (and for creepypasta made manifest) on full display in his feature debut. Skinamarink sits neatly alongside Jane Schoenbrun’s similarly micro-budget indie We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, since both works draw from the same well of dark, dim, and disturbing internet horror, though in this case Ball applies this creative lens to a distinctly pre-internet setting. The year is 1995, and young siblings Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) – kids whose faces we rarely see, but whose voices reflect a heartwarming innocence – wake up in the middle of the night in their two-story suburban home to find their divorced single father missing, and their doors and windows suddenly disappearing from sight. Much of the hour-and-40-minute runtime is lit primarily by the flashing lights of the CRT television set they stay up late to watch, and it casts flickering shadows across their living room walls and the toys scattered on the floor as the light trails off into darkness.

These darkened corners become Ball’s canvas as he trains his camera on the unknown and unseen for lengthy periods, with digitally recreated film grain making the image all the more hazy. While the grain appears obviously applied in post-production (it was shot digitally, after all), the frequent repetitions and even reversals of its patterns make it hard to fully discern the passage of time.

It’s like you’ve stumbled upon an accidental artifact you weren’t supposed to see.

Enhancing this disorienting feeling is the fact that Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae present us with oblique angles, often focusing on the children’s dangling feet as they sit on the couch, or the mid-20th century public domain cartoons they watch, or the LEGO blocks and dolls that seem to move without being touched (even gravity is not what it seems). All the while, a mysterious, unseen presence speaks to Kevin and Kaylee in whispers the mic doesn’t quite pick up, but which are subtitled, allowing its inaudible musings to be understood while still maintaining the lo-fi horror vibe. It feels authentically frightening, like you’ve stumbled upon an accidental artifact you weren’t supposed to see.

The name Skinamarink is borrowed from a preschool song , an appropriation that effectively perverts a childhood memory, and the movie as a whole adopts this thematic approach. It transforms both the familiar comforts of childhood objects – TV sets, stuffed animals, toy phones, etc. – as well as warm spaces, like bedrooms, into the kind of eerie images that seep beneath your skin. In its most terrifying moments, the camera holds steady on the darkness within closets and underneath beds, with no reprieve for the children; no one appears to reassure them that there’s no lurking monster waiting to attack.

In effect, Ball paints an occasionally chilling portrait of a home without protection or escape. Whatever the actual presence may be – perhaps some ghoul or demon – it soon becomes a chilling metaphor for a loveless family and a home where torment is the accepted norm, despite bearing the colorful hallmarks and purchased symbols of childhood care.

A reliance on more conventional horror scares ends up interrupting Skinnamarink’s very fabric. 

These ideas all work individually, but Skinnamarink’s construction fails to make them cohere in a way that feels in-step with its visual approach. While Ball’s biggest influence appears to be the experimental filmmaker Chantal Ackerman – particularly, her own debut Hotel Monterey (1972), composed largely of hotel hallways – his use of lengthy takes that force a hypnotic gaze also falls victim to a certain over-eagerness. Sudden jolts of jarring sound and disturbing imagery might cause momentary startles (as they would in a slasher or haunted house movie), but this reliance on more conventional horror scares ends up interrupting Skinnamarink’s very fabric.

This is a film that requires patience, but that patience is seldom rewarded with the kind of chills that make your neck hairs stand on edge as it forces you to confront distortions of the nostalgic and the familiar. Instead, it simply ejects us from the world it works so hard to envelop us within, becoming annoying and disruptive in the process. That’s a disappointment when it had the potential to be blood-curdling.

All of that said, the fact that a movie made for just $15,000 (and one requiring disciplined engagement from viewers) has played on over 600 North American screens is nothing short of remarkable. Films like Skinamarink are rarely afforded the opportunity to find a mainstream audience. So, despite its stylistic shortcomings, its existence is a clear net positive for the health and variety of theatrical exhibition – even if its promise is less about Skinnamarink itself and more about what it might mean for a new wave of imaginative, web-inspired horror indies, or for Ball’s own future career.