Kyle Edward Ball’s “Skinamarink” is the biggest horror movie Rorschach test since “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), another movie that made half the audience shake in fear, while the other half wondered, “Is that all there is?”
There’s a story here but figuring it all out demands the audience pay attention.
Two children wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. The kids turn on the TV and watch vintage cartoons, slowly realizing that things are not as they should be.
Strange noises, disappearing door and window frames and toys sticking to the ceiling are the least of their worries. There’s also the question of what’s going on in their parents’ room…and is there an unwanted presence in the house?
The pacing is slow and “Skinamarink” feels overextended. I thought the film was nearly done at one point, but then checked my watch and realized there was 40 minutes to go. Nearly every shot is from a child’s point of view, and we rarely see the young brother and sister, our main characters with whom we need to engage.
Yet, writer/director Ball counters this by having us hear the kids talk to one another – we hear the youth and vulnerability in their voices, which makes the ordeal they experience heartbreaking.
The faux videocassette footage is sometimes beautiful, sometimes overly dark, cloaking the details we lean forward to see. In addition to “Blair Witch,” Ball’s film shares the approach of the early “Paranormal Activity” entries, with imagery that sometimes resembles surveillance footage.
Yet, whereas those movies have us waiting for a jump scare, this wants to immerse us in an unsettling environment. For some, it’s not enough to show viewers what a lucid nightmare looks like.
For me, this is more than frightening enough.
Ball shot this low-budget film in the home he grew up in, creating the feel that we’re watching a videocassette tape that we shouldn’t (shades of “The Ring”). The atmosphere of a pitch-black house during nocturnal hibernation (shades of the opening scene of “Poltergeist”) perfectly creates the mood when they wake up at 3 a.m. and feel like they’re on a different planet.
Ball’s film was made for very little, became a must-see attraction during film festivals, and to everyone’s surprise became one of this year’s biggest box office successes. The indie hit grossed north of $2 million on a $15,000 budget.
Word of mouth and an effective trailer made it a premiere curiosity item for seen-it-all horror fans. It’s so distinctly different, self-consciously artsy and psychologically rich, the love-it-or-despise it audience reaction is the only predictable thing about it.
While some may get antsy with the film’s wait-and-see approach to storytelling, things get especially wild and disturbing in the third act. The use of (very) low-grade special effects, shadows and sound is enough to suggest an internal invasion taking place in this house.
Watching this as a jaded adult and horror fan, I found it powerful, cleverly made and quietly horrifying. Had I seen this as a kid, I probably never would have let my mother turn the lights out at bedtime.
Seriously, this one isn’t for children.
“Skinamarink” has some big scares but most of it is subtle. The most horrific reveals are subdued, causing the audience to contemplate exactly what is happening and allowing for the film to haunt us long after its over. If you’re willing to tumble down the dark rabbit hole Ball has created, you’ll find a radical work of horror and one of the best films of the year. (on Shudder)