‘Divisive’ and ‘polarizing’ are some of the words best described for Kyle Edward Ball’s feature-length debut, ‘Skinamarink’, a Shudder original that became a festival hit since its last year’s premiere at the 26th Fantasia International Film Festival. Some people might find it scary while others may see this as watching paint dry.
The latter is evident since ‘Skinamarink’ consists of endless scenes predominantly shot in a static mode with the camera gazes at the indefinite period of pitch-black darkness, walls, ceilings, and hallways. It may be a test of patience for some viewers staring into space, wondering if something would surprise them out of nowhere or if it could be nothing happened at all. Even the story, where Kyle Edward Ball is also responsible for the screenplay, is kept to a bare minimum to the point he eschews the traditional storytelling approach in favor of a vague and experimental narrative.
‘Skinamarink’ takes place entirely within the confines of a house – which is actually shot in the director’s childhood home – as we follow two young children including Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) wake up in the middle of the night to find their dad (Ross Paul) has disappeared. And so do the doors and windows and at one point, even the toilet bowl (yes, really) in the house. Then, there’s the TV playing old cartoons – public domain cartoons, to be exact – as the voices from the characters filled the otherwise quiet atmosphere in the house and the light from the TV screen illuminates the darkness. We see Kevin and Kaylee occasionally whisper to each other and at times, call out their mom (Jaime Hill) and dad. As time goes by, it seems as if something mysterious happens in the house. Is there a malevolent force of evil lurking somewhere in the dark? Or could it be the children imagining things that aren’t there? What is actually going on in the house?
One thing is for sure, if you are looking to be spoon-fed while watching ‘Skinamarink’, this isn’t the type of horror movie. Ball clearly isn’t interested to form a cohesive narrative here. Again, it’s more like an experiment, relying on the viewers to make up their own minds as Ball accompanies his narrative vagueness with primal elements of fear of darkness as well as fear of the unknown. I have mixed feeling about the way Ball chooses to shoot his movie. There are times I have to admit it feels frustrating as I squinted my eyes to see what’s going on the screen. This is especially true since Ball insists on filming ‘Skinamarink’ in dimly-lit grainy footage. The same sense of frustration extended to Ball’s technical choice of positioning his camera out of focus and other times, at the corner or the floor. The sound design tends to be erratic – sometimes whispery quiet, muffled or indecipherable, and sometimes too loud, even though the subtitles that appear periodically on the screen do help.
The 100-minute runtime poses another problem for a horror movie that embraces a lot of suggestive minimalisms and the (pretentious) art of nothingness. This makes the movie stretches longer than it should, which would benefit better if Ball trims it shorter (he also happens to serve as the film editor). Besides, there is only so much a scene of pitch-black darkness and odd or disorienting camera angles pointing at a certain space can do to generate creepiness, fright, and dread.
But ‘Skinamarink’ does have a few effective moments. The POV shots of the children staring while Ball combines them with deliberate slow pans and one of the scenes that truly builds up an escalating sense of dread involves Kevin being told to look under the bed. Childhood fears that most of us can relate to when we were kids. Being terrified of monsters or boogeymen might be hiding under the bed and there’s even a term for that called teraphobia. Ball nevertheless does a good job of tapping the aforementioned fear.
Being a horror film, Ball gives us a few jump scares and there’s a particular scene that caught me by surprise. Let’s just say it’s kind of a jump scare that reminds me of the creepy hospital scene in ‘The Exorcist III’. The overall jump scares aren’t as consistent as most of the traditional horror films you have seen since they occur few and far between. Setting ‘Skinamarink’ in 1995 instead of today’s contemporary era is a conscious choice for this type of movie, allowing Ball to explore the lo-fi concept and the nostalgia-heavy analog period, where there is no modern technology like the internet and social media presence.
‘Skinamarink’ isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. At least not at the level of a cultural phenomenon reminiscent of say, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ back in 1999. And yet, it remains a decent attempt from Kyle Edward Ball, who reportedly spent a mostly crowdfunded budget of $15,000 to make the movie.