Reviewing Skinamarink poses a unique challenge that doesn’t often come up often — and not because I spent parts of it too scared to actually look at the screen.
For Edmonton director Kyle Edward Ball’s shoe-string budget Skinamarink, it’s not the proof, but the problem that’s in the pudding. The tiny experimental horror flick gained an accidental cult following after it was pirated, then clips spread online like wildfire. But all is not as it appears.
The problem with reviewing Skinamarink is that what you expect is not what you’re going to get; an uncontrolled ad campaign has misrepresented a deeply, and intentionally, strange film. Even though it has cemented its place as one of my favourite releases of 2023, I almost feel I’d have better odds playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun than finding someone to recommend it to who’d actually enjoy it.
Embarrassingly when talking about something as deep and nuanced as Skinamarink, the best way I can think of to interpret it is through The Office. In a Halloween episode, resident creep Gabe brings in a movie from the “cinema of the unsettling” — a seemingly disjointed clipshow of black and white images that include a cake filled with blood, a melting Barbie and another cast member’s grandmother.
Q20:49Edmonton director Kyle Edward Ball isn’t afraid to bring your worst nightmare to life
Annoyed and angry, someone asks “What’s the story?” Someone else, just as irritated, responds “there is no story!”
Smiling smugly, Gabe explains: “Maybe the filmmaker realized that even narrative is comforting.”
While that upset, confused reaction is part of the potential problem with Skinamarink, saying it has no story isn’t true.
Taken at face value, Skinamarink is about a haunting. A four-year-old boy and his sister spend the night in their dimly lit home, as their father disappears, their mother fades in and out, and something dark and malevolent causes the home’s doors and windows to disappear as it whispers violent commands from the shadows.
All this plays out through intentionally low quality footage, with the camera pointed more often at toys or the floor than actual people. Speaking to CBC’s Q, Bell explained an intentional concept of the movie is only having his characters on screen for 10 minutes and 15 seconds of the film’s 100-minute runtime.
WATCH | Skinamarink trailer:
The director developed the approach of “implying action, versus actually showing it” through a YouTube channel he started years ago, Bitsized Nightmares. It allowed him to simultaneously ratchet up the fear by largely hiding the monster, challenge his fans with ambiguous, open-ended storylines, and keep his budget low.
“I think a lot of filmmakers kind of assume that audiences aren’t adventurous, or even that smart,” Bell said. “And I’ve always found that’s not the case. Like audiences are way more willing to watch something experimental and way more intelligent than a lot of … pretentious filmmakers would give them credit for.”
For the film’s early run, that has proven to be the case. The technique allowed him to keep the film’s expenses down to a mind-boggling $15,000; it has so far grossed roughly $1.5 million — and a litany of interpretations over what the film is really about.
Without going in-depth, those theories range from child abuse, to parental neglect, to characters having been dead the whole time. Coma-dreams, demons and time-travel are all on the table for what Skinamarink is actually about.
It’s an innovative, and to a certain subset of the population, incredibly compelling way to tell a story. Instead of the straightforward narrative style dominant in virtually every media format on earth, it confounds you on purpose.
There are overarching comparisons to Mark Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, an “ergodic” novel that tells the story of a house impossibly larger on the inside than the outside — through multiple viewpoints crowded upside-down and diagonally on the page at the same time.
It also mirrors horror-mystery games like Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Layers of Fear, and Blair Witch — frightening examples that use the vehicle of video games to overhaul how we collect information about situations and build an understanding of what occurred.
Instead of presenting a story in a linear format, or even just offering information in a way that makes intuitive sense, those games reward players who delight in wandering through mostly deserted, largely silent landscapes for hours on end — discovering disconnected clues in whatever order they happen to find them, and being jolted into sudden fear by unexpected and infrequent jump scares.
Skinamarink fans are like “I love this part!!” <a href=”https://t.co/hZR25GEopI”>pic.twitter.com/hZR25GEopI</a>
Experimental, and polarizing
While that framework absolutely works for those interested in it, it doesn’t for general audiences. After the then-unheard of movie was leaked along with the entire slate of a European horror festival in 2022, TikTok users proceeded to spread out-of-context clips, simply promoting how terrifying it was. It was grassroots growth that mirrored social media momentum around more traditional properties like M3GAN and The Incantation — hyping a small, experimental film as the scariest new movie of 2023.
Soon, people who would otherwise not be digging through the deepest and darkest reaches of niche horror listings saw the organic ad-campaign and glowing reviews and decided to try it out. As its popularity exponentially grew, and the film designed for a specific audience found itself in the melee of wide consumption, negative reactions started pouring in.
“Yes it’s true, if you have ten minutes of silence and then out of nowhere play an extremely loud piercing sound, I will be startled,” reads an offhand review by critic Patrick Willem. “Amazing discovery there.”
But Skinamarink‘s polarizing nature isn’t a bad thing – this movie wasn’t intended to satisfy the tastes of an entire population. Judging it as “bad” for not being widely palatable feels wildly unfair.
That, combined with a series of press interviews from Bell, set the film up for a wave of disappointments. But for fans, the film more than succeeds on its own merits: it is a beautiful and terrifying experience that draws you in and hypnotizes. If hauntings were real, experiencing the violent hostility of Bell’s paranormal presence might be the most realistic representation of how a haunting would actually feel.
Skinamarink is a quiet (though sometimes loud) film from a creator who never aimed for multiplex success, thrown through a now seemingly required social media ringer for which it wasn’t built. An overwhelmingly negative reaction when the film releases for streaming Feb. 2 on Shudder might deter the next experimental approach — just when the genre could use an infusion of creativity.
In terms of a straightforward review though, Skinamarink goes on my list along with The Painted Bird, Spring Breakers and Motorama as movies I’m absolutely obsessed with — and that make me feel almost criminally negligent to recommend.
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