2022’s Skinamarink was easily one of my top five most anticipated films this year (the other four, in case you’re curious, are Knock at the Cabin, Infinity Pool, Renfield, and The Voyage of the Demeter), and the first one that I finally got to lay my eyeballs on, due to Shudder adding it just a couple of days ago as I write this, after it had a brief and financially successful (making over a million dollars on a minuscule budget of $15,000) theatrical run.
Though the film has gotten massive amounts of buzz (especially on TikTok) after a version of it was leaked online following its debut at the Fantasia Film Festival, and although I was aware that audience reaction to the movie was extremely polarized, I managed to avoid any kind of spoilers or reviews prior to watching it for myself so I could come into it with as few preconceptions as possible; I didn’t even watch the trailer, to be honest. And as usual, I’m immensely glad that I didn’t know anything about this one going in because I found it a much more unsettling experience when I didn’t really know what to expect.
I will give a gigantic, neon-flashing caveat, though: I hesitate to recommend this movie to anyone whose very, VERY specific horror tastes I don’t know, because Skinamarink is experimental as fuck, and I feel as though most people who approach it expecting a traditional narrative structure or storytelling beats will absolutely be confused, angry, and/or bored to tears. Unless you allow yourself to vibe completely with this film’s infinitesimally narrow band of purpose, in other words, it will seem as though nothing at all is happening for a very large segment of the movie’s 100-minute runtime. A slow burn is one thing, but this is another situation entirely. I’m serious, y’all…Skinamarink looked at Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, David Amito & Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten, Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire and said, oh, you think you’re inscrutable? You think you’ve accurately captured an actual nightmare on film? Well, hold my beer, because I’m going to show you what inscrutability and nighmarishness really look like, motherfuckers.
So what I’m saying is that if you like any of the above films, and especially if you’re also really into analog horror and ARGs, then Skinamarink should be right up your alley, if you’re very patient with it and open to what it’s trying to do. For everyone else, I would advise staying far, far away, because you will probably really, really, hate this. I would also recommend not necessarily seeing this in a theater (though it’s always good to support independent filmmakers, don’t get me wrong). I just think that for maximum effectiveness, you need to watch this completely alone, in the middle of the night, in your pitch-black house. And then after you watch it, you should make your way to your bedroom without turning any lights on, and then just lie there in the dark with your eyes open, staring out at the shadowed corners of your room, and think hard about what you just saw.
To get a feel of what you’re in for, as a matter of fact, and to gauge whether this film would be something you’d enjoy, kindly visit the YouTube channel of the first-time director of Skinamarink, Kyle Edward Ball, who has a channel called Bitesized Nightmares, on which he produces short films trying to replicate people’s nightmares that they’ve described to him. There are several that are only a few minutes long, but there’s also one called “Heck,” which is about 28 minutes or so and was sort of like the “proof of concept” preparation for Skinamarink. The idea for Skinamarink, incidentally, emerged from this YouTube project, as Ball began to notice many people’s childhood nightmares had very similar themes. He was thus curious to see if he could tap into some kind of primal, half-remembered childhood dream state that we all collectively share. I think he mostly achieved this goal with Skinamarink, which came across to me as spookily familiar and mesmerizing, reminding me (and apparently lots of other people) of creepy nightmares they had as children. So Skinamarink is like one of those nightmare shorts on his channel, but way more low-fi and extended to an hour and forty minutes. The house he shot Skinamarink in, which is his childhood home, also appears in all of the shorts I’ve watched on that channel.
The “plot” of the movie, if you want to call it that (and I really don’t), concerns two children, six-year-old Kaylee and four-year-old Kevin. The year is 1995. The kids are apparently in their house with their parents (or at least their dad), but keep in mind that you don’t really see anyone in the movie at all, and not just because the whole thing is extremely dark and grainy as all get-out; most of the time the kids are off-screen—as you’re generally seeing things from their child-sized perspective—or you just see their legs and feet. Their mother and father are seen even less, and usually from the back (which is something that’s always weirded me out in horror movies, just seeing the back of people’s heads, so this movie really did a number on me in that regard).
There are hints at the beginning that the boy, Kevin, has had some kind of accident and has fallen down the stairs while sleepwalking, but his father tells someone (his wife?) on the phone that the kid is pretty much fine; he went to the hospital but didn’t need stitches.
Soon after, the children apparently wake up in their dimmed abode in the middle of the night and discover that not only have their parents disappeared from the house entirely, but the children themselves are unable to leave because all the doors and windows have likewise vanished; Kevin pulls up the blinds only to see a solid wall behind them.
Unsure what to do, the kids creep downstairs to the living room and put some cartoons on the television. Most of the movie has this strange, immersive atmosphere that many of us might remember from being a child and being up way past our bedtimes: the house is quiet except for the distant music and voices from an old cartoon, and the only light is the blue flicker of the CRT screen, highlighting the Legos and stuffed animals the kids have brought downstairs to play with. Much of the film’s runtime is concerned with just these types of experiences: lingering shots of darkened halls and doorways where the grainy film stock makes your imagination play tricks on you, encouraging you to pick out shapes in the darkness; mysterious and unexplained thumps and creaks coming from upstairs. The children speak only in whispers, many of which are actually subtitled (even if you didn’t put the closed captioning on, as I did). The sound design here also goes a long way toward making this a disquieting film to watch, as it consists of whispers and distant, distorted voices interspersed with occasional ominous tones and sudden, jarring shrieks accompanying some pretty upsetting flashes of imagery.
As the film goes on, ever more bizarre things start to take place in the house: a chair suddenly relocates to the ceiling; toys and other objects disappear and reappear in uncanny configurations; the cartoons on the TV start pausing and looping over and over; and a sinister voice begins trying to lure the children to other parts of the house and encouraging them to do harm to themselves.
One scene in particular that was pretty skin-crawling was when Kaylee goes into her parents’ room and sees her father sitting on the edge of the bed; all we see of him is his legs, clad in pajama pants. We’re led to believe that this isn’t actually the child’s father, but perhaps the unseen “monster” in disguise. The father asks her to look under the bed, and the next few moments are an exquisite exercise in dread, produced from nothing but our own deeply-rooted fears and the suggestive darkness on the screen in front of us. I think the genius of Skinamarink, if you jump on its particular wave, is that much of the scariness of the film comes from you doing a number on yourself, feverishly searching the ever-shifting, grain-choked blackness for the terrible things you’re sure must be there, watching and waiting.
This whole movie, in fact, really makes you feel as though this is some weird shit you just stumbled across on an old, unmarked videotape; something that you’re not really supposed to be watching, something that shouldn’t have been recorded to begin with. That’s not to say it’s particularly graphic or gory or disturbing in that way, but it just feels…wrong, somehow, like it simply leeched out of someone’s subconscious and imprinted itself on tape, like that creepy video from The Ring, but feature length.
There are some interesting interpretations floating around on the internet of what exactly is going on in the movie—because despite the nontraditional narrative, there is clearly something happening—but I think to a large extent, it will be a subjective experience for everyone. I definitely got the impression that the children’s mother is perhaps divorcing the father, is probably abusive, and might be the actual catalyst for whatever the supernatural monster or demon is that’s in the house and trapping the children inside. It seems significant that Kyle Edward Ball, in an interview about Skinamarink, mentioned Hansel and Gretel, and also intimated that the film was partially autobiographical, as he was trying to convey a particular feeling that he and his sister had when they were children, dealing with whatever was happening in their own house and with their own parents.
As I mentioned, this is absolutely not a film for everyone, but it seems as though it’s resonating hard with a large chunk of the horror movie fandom, who understand the sensations and nostalgia, and childhood trauma that the film is attempting to replicate. I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this myself when I first started watching it; I’m not proud of this, but when I first put it on, I was watching it on my laptop with one eye while working on my other computer with my other eye, but after about ten or fifteen minutes, it’s like I got hypnotized, and I just abandoned whatever other thing I was doing and laser-focused right in on the movie while it wove its bizarre spell.
Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Skinamarink is doing something wildly different, trying a new approach, and that’s why I’ll always love this genre, as it’s forever innovating, looking for new ways to terrify us, to get past the chinks in our armor. If Skinamarink didn’t work for you, perhaps something else will, but I think it’s important to support independent, experimental horror like this because that’s the best way to keep our beloved genre fresh and frightening.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.