“Taken in individual scenes and moments, it’s profoundly unsettling. However, extended to a 100-minute runtime, the movie loses focus and starts taking swings that aren’t as disciplined.”
by Ken Bakely
Entirely wordless for large stretches, and built almost completely on particularly menacing vibes, Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink is, if nothing else, an intriguing horror experiment, built on the bizarre, unquantifiable fears of childhood. It is remarkable what can scare us then. Electronic devices are mystifying, hallways are cavernous and imposing when darkness covers it in shadow, and there are nightmares based in existential unmooring – what if your parents and all signs of familiarity in your cloistered world could just disappear? These are the movie’s bread and butter, set in a world that is never explained. Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) are small children who wake up to discover that they are all alone. Their parents are nowhere to be found, and what’s more, the doors and windows of their house have vanished, too. Their house is mostly shrouded in darkness – not that matters are helped by the eerie glow of the few lights that remain on – and there is no working form of communication with the outside world. A static-riddled TV drones with cartoons and advertisements playing over each other in a harrowing cacophony. Toys linger in strange configurations around the house, beyond the laws of physics. And there are frightening sounds and sights with no apparent source, reaching out from some malevolent unknown. It’s a presence which speaks disturbing intonations and directs the chaos which slowly mounts around this house, while its young occupants are helpless to do anything but live at its mercy.
What’s going on? What is it? These are questions which are never answered, and this is for the best. Skinamarink is a dizzying setlist of anxieties, drawn from the anxieties of a formative age. When we are children, everything is bigger and more imposing than us; wherever we are, we haven’t been there before. There is no control, and this is a work of horror distilled to that formative idea of the genre. Kevin and Kaylee are not active protagonists as much as they are the human presence onto which the action is projected. They’re not even onscreen for long periods of time. They are as overwhelmed by it as we are as viewers, and Ball, in his feature debut, never lets us believe that we will be allowed above the fold and given some greater understanding. Occurrences and feelings come and go in anarchic sequences. Ball doesn’t follow dream “logic” as much as he follows dream imagery – his film plays like half-remembered snippets from trying to describe a nightmare that’s lingered in our subconscious for years, and made even more frightening when we can’t figure out exactly what scared us so much. We can’t investigate it, and so we’ll never understand it. It is one thing to think about lights and shadows casting disturbing images, but it’s another thing altogether to be completely ensconced in them, never knowing what is causing it. And for nearly the film’s entire runtime, that sensation is really all there is to Skinamarink. Not only do you never know what’s causing this, you are never entirely certain what is happening to begin with.
When it comes to setting this alienating tone and atmosphere, Ball excels in spades, shooting on a grainy film that suggests an aged collection of footage (it’s set in 1995); distant and locked away in time and place. Taken in individual scenes and moments, it’s profoundly unsettling. However, extended to a 100-minute runtime, the movie loses focus and starts taking swings that aren’t as disciplined. There is atmosphere, the unknown, and then these great big gasps of real menace and threat – jump scares, really, and married with flashes of direct violence – that feel like inevitable extensions of having to make this a feature film. But by then, it’s not merely suspended in time within its world, but suspended in time for the viewer, giving no indication where and when it wants to go anywhere. This requires more command and depth of vision than are inherently present with this premise. Thus, the closer it gets to revealing something – particularly in an ending that’s very interested in being Climactic-with-a-capital-C without having set anything up beforehand or having anywhere to go – the more conversely empty it feels, because it’s never really laid any groundwork for it.
Skinamarink ends up gradually losing confidence in its own ideas. For some amount of time – and, watched in the dark and properly absorbed, you probably will lose track of time – it is self-evidently accomplished, a tale of supernatural horror filtered through a surreal interpretation of slice-of-life filmmaking. But it can’t stay in that lane for as long as it wants to, and it careens to an end that no one really asked for. Within the first few moments, we know that the grown-ups are gone and any access to the world is gone, too. No explanation. The chaos begins from there, and that’s scary enough.