8/10 Skinamarink, 2023’s new internet horror classic, is intentionally uncomfortable, incisively symbolic and coldly denies any literal interpretation. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I got a lot out of it.
Writer/director/editor Kyle Edward Ball’s childhood home in Edmonton, Alberta, 1995- Kevin and Kaylee (Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault), 4 and 6, wake up to discover their parents are gone and all the doors and windows have disappeared. Trapped without even a way to mark time, the children collect their toys and camp out in the living room, but must contend with the commands of the shadow monster who lives upstairs.
To watch Skinamarink is to have the deepest, most primal repressed childhood fears vacuumed out of your brain and directly onto the screen. It’s a soul-chilling voyage through a place that exists only in the horrified memory of a child who has not yet grown into his power and remains afraid of the world as a prey animal who cannot yet identify his predators, only fear them, a long domestic nightmare that makes sounds as mundane as the opening of a door or the flick of a light switch into unbearable terrors.
The film is slow, with many extremely long shots with no movement in front of the camera or of the camera itself, often from odd angles or close-ups of ignored objects. The terror does not come out toward Kevin and Kaylee, but instead invites them into its lair as it expands from the master bedroom, and so Skinamarink relies on viewer engagement and suspense for its terror. It is built for viewers to stare into black doorframes and attempt to peer around the screen’s corners to see the monster coming as quickly as possible, but for anyone watching the film out of the corner of their eye, it has no mechanism do draw their full attention – which, in turn, makes the hype surrounding the film a critical part of the experience.
Skinamarink emerged from Ball’s YouTube channel, Bitesized Nightmares, where he turns subscriber-submitted nightmares into reality. Waking up with absent parents and a vague menace was such a common submission that he made it his first feature – there’s actually a proof-of-concept short, “Heck,” available on his channel. After knocking it out of the park at a few festivals, Skinamarink was leaked online to astonishing word-of-mouth on social media, which eventually led to it jumping the route and getting a limited release that peaked at 809 theaters and grossed just over $2 million against a $15,000 budget. That’s a 13,000% return on investment.
The film obviously echoes 2007’s paradigm-shifting found footage sensation Paranormal Activity in a number of ways, especially the in-home setting that acts as a shortcut to the back of viewers’ minds, but also in microscopic budget and backward stumble into theaters. The 2007 film, shot for $215,000, was bought by Dreamworks with the intent to produce a big-budget adaptation with the same personnel, holding the original film for a DVD extra, but that plan was scrapped when festival audiences walked out on the film en masse because they were so scared. The original microbudget film was resold to Paramount and made its way around the world over the next year, backing into a $193.4 million worldwide gross for an almost 90,000% return on the original production budget.
Producer Jason Blum immediately became the king of horror, and his Blumhouse Productions logo is still a common sight today, but he was quickly supplanted by James Wan, with whom he worked on 2010’s Insidious, and the various series they set in motion have blurred toward bigger budgets, cliché hot-and-cold plot structures and hackney jump scares paired with lore about Catholic mysticism, apparently trying to turn horror films into mass-appealing blockbusters.
It remains to be seen if Skinamarink will re-revolutionize horror to the same extent Paranormal Activity did, but that’s partially because it won’t be alone if it does. Late 2022 hosted a kindred spirit in theaters in Terrfier 2, another auteurist film driven by internet demand made for less than $1 million. Together, they pioneer a return to horror’s traditional place in the film landscape as bottom-of-the-barrel features happy to be dismissed by mainstream viewers, but with great individuality and true extremes of gore for those who partake.
Both films, but especially Skinamarink, are firmly rooted in the democratization of cinema over the past 20 years – the digital revolution took place seemingly overnight at the turn of the century, YouTube debuted in 2005 and Ball shoots Skinamarink on a Sony FX6, a camera that first went on sale in late 2020, but Skinamarink looks vividly like a memory of 1995. Artifacts of cheap home recording technology from that time period are in many ways the main course of the film.
The entire movie is awash in film grain like a thick fog somewhere between the screen and the subject. To shoot it, Ball blacked out his windows and cinematographer Jamie McRae used the television, which the children keep on playing old cartoons for comfort, as the only light source, and cranked up the ISO – for non-camera people, ISO is a measure of the sensitivity of the camera to light. A higher ISO makes more of the light that it captures, but you start to pick up digital noise whenever it goes higher than 800 or so. Skinamarink was shot with the ISO set at 50,000 and higher, and then even more grain and digital noise was added in post-production.
The soundscape is cluttered with all sorts of bumps and knocks that might be the shadow monster rummaging around upstairs and strange sounds and hisses that might be whispers in its native language. The film makes selective and pointed use of subtitles to emphasize what viewers ought to take away and also allow the children to speak in age-appropriate whispers and babbles and the monster’s voice to be a heavily distorted alien horror.
The interference is so thick the entire movie looks and sounds almost like it’s underwater. The dim blues and looming interiors take the energy of a damp, barely lit cave, and I can almost hear water dripping as if off stalagmites into a pool in the background. The house is like a cavern, somehow, even as it focuses on claustrophobic corners and rarely leaves the living room, every cut the turning of a screw deeper and deeper into the heart of this place.
The grain takes over to make some of the completely black shots near the end look like rain on a black window, and again you get that feeling that you are looking out at something through that screen, you just can’t see it.
Much of Skinamarink is second-person, shot from low angles meant to be Kevin’s or Kaylee’s point of view, so most of the movie happens directly to you, the viewer. This is another way Skinamarink is quite similar to found footage films, but with very different implications – found footage films necessarily center on filmmaking characters, who bring with them a photographer’s perspective and must necessarily grapple with why their story is being told and how interacting with their situation by filming it changes it. Kevin and Kaylee aren’t filmmakers, they’re children in a predicament.
Shooting so much in second person also means the children aren’t even onscreen most of the time, which means they didn’t need to be onset for most of production. A lot of shooting days were clearly Ball and McRae running around the house alone with the camera.
It’s hard to parse how much of that is necessity, how much is artistic vision and how much of that is stuffing and forcing the concept to feature length. You don’t get much more out of the full 100-minute film than you do out of the 30-minute short or even the two-minute trailer, and it’s hard to argue anyone who grows bored with Skinamarink in its early stages should continue watching. It’d be easy enough to splice the scenes in which something actually happens together into a 20-30 minute movie, and the really scary moments are mostly backloaded. The film also firmly denies any literal reading, so there isn’t really a plot to spoil. It’s a vibe, and the filmmaking is so strong that it brings you that vibe really quickly.
The film is billed as “Poltergeist as done by David Lynch,” and it feels very much like a domestic-set version of Eraserhead, but I see a lot of Werner Herzog in it. Herzog believes that shots will transform if you hold on them for long enough, a belief that leads him to weaken many of his films by holding on several shots for a dozen seconds or so after they’ve served their narrative purpose. Sometimes he’s right!
Skinamarink follows this philosophy, holding for 20 to 30 seconds on shots down dark hallways or of corners in which there’s no movement, outside of that swimming film grain, and often no dialogue, but viewers are allowed to imagine what might be lurking in the shadows. This could be a Herzogian touch, or it could be Ball stretching to fill the runtime – again, there’s really no way to tell the difference.
All interpretations funnel immediately toward some degree of parental abuse or neglect. Neglect is obvious, and we get a lot of choice lines like “I don’t want to talk about Mom” or “Your father and I love you very much” that clearly indicate not all is right in the household. These scraps of information stick out in a film that’s so diligent about denying details.
The details are indicative, but they aren’t necessary – neglect and signs of abuse are plain to see, as are the associations with the shadow monster and their parents. The thing seems to live in the master bedroom, and when it calls out to them, it is mostly to issue commands, which the children have difficulty refusing, and it takes things away, especially their toys, as punishment when they do. I’d love to know who’s performing the thing’s voice, as I suspect it is the actors who play their parents, but the character is uncredited and I’m not finding the information online.
At its most basic, Skinamarink is about isolation and dehumanization through the denial of the human face, either by physical distance from the child characters, obscurity through the film’s mist or mutilation by the shadow monster. In the parents’ only scene, their heads are out of frame, and the film builds to its climax with several close-ups on family photos, their faces ruined. The consistent emphasis on disembodied voices and constant absence of anyone from the frame, even the children themselves, help make isolation into the film’s real horror.
I cannot substantiate this feeling, but in Skinamarink’s heartstopping final shot, when Kevin suddenly comes face to face with the shadow monster, I am certain that he is looking into a mirror, and the story is one of him coming into his power at great trial and cost. There’s nothing in the film to indicate this and in fact there are several things to point to that contradict it, but it’s my personal emotional reaction to the film, the kind of abstraction it was designed to elicit, if a little more optimistic than it should be.
Walking down the hallway out of the auditorium after the film cuts to black, another viewer whispers something behind me and I jump about 10 feet in the air. My car has frosted over in the 30 degree January night, but, shaking from both the cold and what I’ve just seen, I cannot stay still, and so I leave well before it’s safe, driving into the night through a thin layer of ice that looks remarkably like the watery filters of Skinamarink. Interstate-55 south out of St. Louis is poorly lit, and my drive is marked by rear headlights like glowing red eyes swimming at me out of the black.
When I get to my hotel in Pevely 30 miles out of the city, I quickly explore the space and find a “Friends” marathon on Nick at Nite for some easy background noise, but it feels exactly like the cartoons Kevin and Kaylee leave on and provides no comfort.
There are plenty of good films that everyone can enjoy. Skinamarink is difficult, frustrating and denies any form of closure, but it’s visionary, bold and clearly affected me on an emotional and psychological level. That means something.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.