‘Skinamarink’ Will Only Scare You If You’ve Ever Been A Child
1:50 PM EST on January 18, 2023
Skinamarink, a new ultra-low-budget experimental horror film, is probably not a movie for teenagers or for people looking for a popcorn-and-giggling-type theatergoing experience. It’s such a dark and quiet movie, and the visuals are so odd and distorted, that the only way to really enjoy it—to, like, make heads or tails of it at all—is by paying close attention to every small quiet sound and every bizarrely long close-up of a pile of Legos. Not because there are obscure clues hiding there, without which you will not be able to solve some mystery, but because the sense of deep and upsetting disorientation and dread that is the movie’s whole fuckin’ deal is built out of dark and quiet. If you’re not the sort of person to sit very still and very quiet through a 100-minute horror movie, whether because you need the occasional release of tension or because you have the attention span of a toddler, maybe just do other moviegoers a solid and wait for this one to come out on streaming.
For that matter, if you don’t expect to be able to watch Skinamarink in a teen-less movie theater, I would recommend waiting for it to be released on Shudder, which should be within a matter of weeks. There were four teens seated in a group in my theater at the start of the movie, and they spent the first 20 minutes or so of the film very lightly teening—whispering to each other, giggling nervously, more than once dropping items on the floor. Because the movie is so so quiet, the level of distraction and disruption was wildly out of proportion to the relatively low and harmless noises the teens made, to the point that no fewer than four different people had to ask them to please stop. Fortunately, a few minutes before the first of the movie’s several blindingly terrifying sequences, the teens became so fidgety and embarrassed that they got up and left the theater. I felt bad because they had seen basically none of the movie, but I also felt enormous relief: I was so aware of them and so desperate for them to shut the fuck up that I realized I wasn’t absorbing what was happening on the screen, but instead was considering Skinamarink entirely on its capacity to distract a group of excited teenagers to a condition of awed silence.
If I’m making it sound like Skinamarink is a difficult or unpleasant movie to watch, or one that requires that you engage with it intellectually, rather than as an entertainment product, I really sincerely do not intend to. Quite the contrary. To me, with a couple nights to reflect and also to, uhh, to suddenly be extremely afraid of the more poorly lit parts of my own goddamn home, Skinamarink is one of the coolest, most impressive, most bitchin’ movies of any genre that I have watched in a very long time. It’s unlike almost any other feature-length movie I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly committed to recalling and conjuring the familiar senses and impressions of childhood, and the level of commitment to the aesthetic and storytelling choices necessary to evoke those senses and impressions would be laudable all on its own, before we even get to the part where it uses as a support structure for all of this a sharp, engaging and viscerally terrifying plot.
In Skinamarink, two very small children—4-year-old Kevin and his slightly older but still very young sister, Kaylee, perhaps 6—wake from broken, restless sleep sometime in the night and discover that their father, the only adult in the home, has disappeared. Worse, the exterior doors and windows of the home appear to have been somehow erased, along with at least one toilet. Unable to make sense of all of this—because they are 4 and 6 years old—but adorably calm and sanguine-seeming about the prospects of things returning to normal soon enough, the children move to the living room, watch VHS tapes of old cartoons, eat cereal, and play with toys, very occasionally asking each other where they think their dad might’ve gone, but without any hint of panic. Over time it starts to seem like maybe the kids aren’t quite alone in the house. I have made several efforts to describe how that plays out, both in the drafting of this blog and to my very patient but deeply uninterested wife, and I have learned that I cannot do it proper justice. Suffice to say, in a way that is similar to Jaws or The Blair Witch Project getting a lot of mileage from hiding their monsters, Skinamarink is very careful about yielding up as little sensory information as possible, and making sure that the information it does provide cannot be linked together very readily to form a complete understanding of what the fuck is going on.
That’s as much as I feel comfortable saying about the plot. Part of that is because I think Skinamarink really does deserve to be seen without any foreknowledge of what will happen, but the larger part is because I don’t want to focus too closely on the plot, lest you gain the impression that the movie is plot-driven. For that matter, I wouldn’t want you to have the impression that it is particularly character-driven. While we’re talking about this: No character in Skinamarink appears fully on screen at any point, and no entire face is ever shown, and almost zero movement of any kind is ever captured. Kevin and Kaylee are shown in partial silhouette a few times, but overwhelmingly they are depicted as tiny little feet and pajama’d lower legs, moving around on the far sides of pieces of furniture or just visible in a gash of slanting light. We might as well talk now about the movie’s photography choices, in general: There are zero establishing shots in Skinamarink; the first complete view you have of any room in the house comes at about the 100th minute; at no point in the movie is any significant part of any space shown in full light; overwhelmingly the story is told in still, odd-angled, incredibly dark close-ups of random-seeming ceiling corners and cluttered patches of carpet. To add to the feeling of disorientation, the camera’s view sometimes switches, without any warning or immediate indication, from these obscured and occasionally claustrophobic third-person shots to an equally anxious, slow, dreamlike, Kubrick-esque first-person. This tends to be when shit gets extremely fucking real. At one point I had both hands clamped over my mouth to avoid screaming aloud.
Then there is the choice, by director Kyle Edward Ball, to present the visuals with the thick, textured, snowy visual static of 1980s Betamax camcorder footage. Watching the early scenes of Skinamarink, which come the closest to “normal,” I first thought of Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, which uses a similar if less intrusive effect, and which Cosmatos chose because he was trying to “create a film that is a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist”—the deep-fried look of something you’d stumble upon in a video rental store or late at night on some obscure TV channel. Skinamarink’s visual texture is much thicker, and in fact the grain doesn’t seem quite as natural, but I thought it accomplished a lot, and not just because Skinamarink appears to be set sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. In a weird and unexpected way, all the visual distortion, acting as a layer between the viewer and the action on screen, gives the dark spaces of the house a kind of visual authenticity. Here’s what I mean: Walk into a well-lit room of your house after dark some night, and then turn off all the lights. The darkness isn’t smooth shades and patches of deep blackness, ordered by clean lines and geometric shapes. It’s eigengrau, fuzzy and alive with phosphenes, so that, say, the near-total blackness of an unlit closet has a certain irritating outer shell. It is hard to describe; this is not something that movies tend to depict. When the daughter in The Conjuring looks under the bed, she and the audience see a clean, orderly view clear through to the opposite side of the room, where we can watch together in stark terror and with zero confusion as the bedroom door glides shut. When the daughter in Skinamarink looks under the bed, she and the audience see a ghastly, crawling black, utterly impenetrable, strobing and pushing back at us. The imprecise visuals work with the obscured views and sparse, hissing audio to create a condition where the audience is never very sure exactly what they’re seeing or hearing. It’s really incredibly effective, even if it takes a little adjusting to.
That’s what I mean when I say the movie is more about senses and impressions—and in particular the impressions and scrambled sensory input of small children—than it is about the plot, which Skinamarink comes close to abandoning in an exhilarating, deeply weird, possibly non-linear, and frankly extremely fucking troubling final 15 minutes. There’s an excellent and even visually beautiful little dreamlike scene where what at first very clearly appears to be one thing slowly melts in near absolute blackness until it appears to be very clearly another, very different thing. Neither thing is at all threatening on its own, but the movie’s choice to show how one could be misunderstood as the other potentially reframes some of what has previously happened in the movie. It is also simply a callback to the experience of being a small child in a dark bedroom, sleepy but not asleep, with your imagination going to town on every half-seen shape and every bump in the night.
I have an appallingly poor memory of my early childhood, but here is something that I remember very well: One night I woke up sometime before dawn. I was lonely or I'd had a nightmare or I was just fidgety, and I wanted some comforting. So I tiptoed out into the hallway—mercifully always well-lit by an overhead light fixture—and loitered in front of my parents' closed bedroom door for a few minutes before working up the nerve to knock and enter. I must've called out in the very dark room to one or the other of my parents, but my dad is the one who answered, grumbling warningly that I should return to my bed. I turned around and closed the door behind me and tiptoed back across the hallway, and as I opened the door to my very dark bedroom I saw a very large man kneeling on my bed. I froze in confusion and watched without daring to flinch or even blink as the man leaned over backwards in one smooth motion, until he was lying more or less flat, with just his huge knees and lower legs visible in the slanting light from the hallway. I was so disoriented and terrified by what I'd seen, and was so completely deadly certain that there was a stranger on my bed in the middle of the night, that I became dizzy and lightheaded, and backed out of the room and eventually fell over on the floor of the hallway with my eyes clenched shut and started screaming for my parents.
It wasn't a large man, of course. It was the quilted comforter of my own bed, which I'd left crumpled in a big bundle when I'd left the room. A draft from the opening of hallway doors caused it to sink a little as I entered the room, and that movement tricked my brain into believing it had seen something it had not. This was one of I’m sure hundreds of times when my eyes and child’s brain made very believable threats out of the normal and familiar shapes and sounds of my room. Few of these individual scenarios survived as discrete memories, but my many experiences of this phenomenon have swirled together into an eerie amalgamation of some of the really intensely frightening alone-times of my childhood. Today, when I put my child to bed, I scan the room in the dark, hoping to spot and eliminate the things that will become alien and frightening to her when she wakes in the night, but it is an absolute fact that her brain will do this no matter how pointlessly her father hopes to intercede. Some part of childhood is just not knowing what the real world is, and having that lack of knowledge filled in by imagination, for better and worse.