A grainy image of a young boy staring at a slightly-open door, illuminated by a night light.

For a horror lover like myself, the downside of seeing as many scary movies as possible — from slashers to the supernatural, from the gory to the psychological — is that it’s easy to become somewhat immune to the predictable scares that most thrillers offer. In many cases, the biggest impact that horror movies have on me nowadays is a momentary jolt from a predictable jump scare, or a vague but temporary feeling of dread. So give credit to Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink: this is the first horror movie I’ve seen in years that made me turn on the lights in every room before going to bed, scanning the shadows and corners for unseen monsters.

Director: Kyle Edward Ball
Producer: Dylan Pearce
Writer: Kyle Edward Ball
Cinematography: Jamie McRae
Cast: Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault, Ross Paul, Jaime Hill
Runtime: 100 minutes
Country of Origin: USA
Premiere: July 25, 2022 (Fantasia International Film Festival)
US Release: January 13, 2023

The plot is nearly nonexistent, which seems to have irritated many viewers, though that emphasis on atmosphere over logicality is precisely what makes Skinamarink so scary. Two children wake up in the middle of the night and discover that their father has disappeared. What’s more, as they inch through their increasingly dark and foreboding home, they realize that the windows and doors are slowly vanishing, trapping them inside. An evil presence seems to be in the house with them, manifested only by creepy whispers and shapes seen from oblique angles. The proceedings hardly make any more sense as the movie goes on, though it still ends in about the only satisfying (and terrifying) way that it could have.

Even though it’s shot on digital video, expert manipulation in postproduction makes it look like Skinamarink could have been filmed on grainy 8mm in the 1970s. In some other movies, I would hate that kind of posturing — why not put in the actual work of shooting on celluloid? In Skinamarink, however, those effects work very well to convey a faded, nightmarish world, not unlike the digital visions that David Lynch offers in Inland Empire (2006). Everyday objects like toys, appliances, and lighting fixtures take on otherworldly menace, a veneer of normalcy suddenly turning rotten.

A dark, grainy image of a child's toy with large plastic eyes.

In fact, I think the movie is partly about the switch from analog to digital technologies: it’s set in 1995, when the digital takeover was starting to pick up steam (that’s the year in which DV cassettes for camcorders were introduced to the market), and demented cartoons broadcast on televisions are featured prominently in Skinamarink, as though the channels being picked up by TVs are their own kind of sinister foreign presence. Sometimes, when I pause to think about the satellites and invisible signals providing us with our ubiquitous wifi and cell phone networks, I get the discomfiting sense that we’re surrounded by phantoms of the 21st century, which seem helpful but may have malevolent designs. Skinamarink conveys a similar kind of pervasive, indescribable horror, and it’s brilliantly achieved by its distinct aesthetic, halfway between grainy, discolored celluloid and hyperclear digital video.

While there’s little that’s humanistic or psychological about the film, it seems very clearly to be a warped vision of writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s upbringing. Indeed, the film is meant to be an approximation of a child’s nightmare — maybe even the collective nightmare that kids in the mid-’90s might have had. The simplicity of the story appears primal and dreamlike, eschewing narrative logic for a deeper, more unsettling truth. The pacing and form are slow and austere — a lot of static shots, slow pans, disorienting angles looking up or down, fragmented shots of carpets and stairwells, relentlessly building a sinister mood — but that slow pace becomes an extremely unsettling game: peer into the dark, shadowy corners of each frame and you may be able to spot human-like shapes and other presences, lurking there for you to see if only you look hard enough.

A strange image of a bunch of toys and other objects funneling down into the top of a house.

What is the monster at the heart of Skinamarink? We can never know for sure, in much the same way that our nightmares often function. In some ways, the monster is film form itself, the ways that grain, light, color, and shape transform before our very eyes, especially as evoked in Skinamarink. In other ways, the threatening presence is the precarity of childhood: everything seems safe and secure when our parents and a nice, quiet home are there, but as soon as they’re taken away, everything becomes evil and menacing. Deep down inside, I think all of us know that nightmare; we’ve had it at some point in our childhoods, inexplicable and more frightening because of it. That’s the dreadful power of Skinamarink: it makes us relive youthful terrors we thought were long behind us.

written by Matthew Cole Levine

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