As off-putting as it is engaging, “Skinamarink” is a polarizing nightmare that will leave you bewildered or terrified — quite possibly both.
I read a review of Skinamarink that described it as the kind of film destined to be wildly polarizing; expect to see a heavy mix of 1-star and 5-star reviews. After experiencing it for myself, that seems to be a fair and accurate description. It’s also the kind of film that may benefit significantly from you going in as blind as possible, as I did, entirely unprepared for what you’re about to experience.
That type of unknowing viewing that catches you off-guard and takes you completely by surprise is undoubtedly what made Skinamarink such a viral sensation when it was pirated and leaked online following an online festival screening.
My best advice is to ignore all the reviews, even this one.
Stop reading now and see this movie. If you’ve managed to avoid the hype up until this point and you aren’t quite sure what this film is all about, get off the internet and go experience this for yourself — preferably in a dark theater where you can fully immerse yourself in the experience.
Approaching this film with childlike innocence and wonder certainly enhances your ability to see the world from a child’s perspective, something this film demands to truly deliver the scares.
The problem with that approach is the experimental nature of the film.
You should be prepared that it may not be an enjoyable or engaging viewing experience.
It may leave you cold, even frustrated. Quite frankly, you may hate it. But you may also find it brilliant, captivating, and potentially one of the scariest films you’ve seen in some time.
Either way, it’s worth the risk.
It’s worth it because, even if it doesn’t blow your mind, I wager you may appreciate the effort here more than enough to make it worth your time.
Reportedly shot for a meager $15,000, it’s also the kind of film people love to talk about. Even those who hate it will be eager to discuss it. And that alone is the mark of a film that does something interesting enough to demand attention. You’ll want to watch it to be a part of the conversation.
Skinamarink is the debut feature film from Canadian filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball. For the past five years, Ball has been showcasing avant-garde horror shorts based on user-submitted nightmares on his YouTube channel “Bite-Sized Nightmares”. Ball claims a large number of users shared a similar nightmare about being a young child and waking up alone in a house, with no idea what was happening and the overwhelming feeling that something dangerous was lurking around every corner.
That’s the basic premise for his experimental film Skinamarink, which became a surprise cult hit when it debuted on the festival circuit at Fantasia last year. In fact, this is one of those instances where the premise is the entire plot.
This is not a film with a traditional narrative structure. Instead, it’s a film where you could argue that, literally, nothing of consequence happens for the 100-minute runtime.
That sounds like a fairly laborious viewing experience — and for many, it will be.
This isn’t a film about a story.
It’s also not about characters, as there really aren’t any. Ostensibly, it’s about two preschool-aged children who wake up in the middle of their night to find their father is missing, and their exits out of the home have disappeared.
While it’s indeed shot from the perspective of a child, it’s a child whose face you never see and who really only acts as the conduit for the viewer’s own anxieties, fears, and nightmarish memories about what it was like to be a child experiencing the terror of the unknown — when the world seems so vast, and we feel so entirely vulnerable.
In the absence of a story and compelling characters, is it at least beautiful to look at? Not even a little.
Not quite found footage but certainly in that vein, most of the shots feature barely-lit hallways and grainy footage that looks like it was shot on home video. Filmed entirely in Ball’s childhood home, it’s not artfully shot but rather intentionally framed to look both mundane and disorienting. There’s a repetition to the shots, where we see the same rooms and the same objects and ceilings over and over again. It’s nothing more than a child’s legs traversing a home, trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Because something is most definitely wrong.
You can feel it. It’s overwhelming; a thick air of tension and terror that hangs in the air. What exactly it is, you don’t know. You never know.
If you are someone who craves cinematic structure, logic, and answers, this film will almost certainly drive you mad. It’s not that kind of film.
What Ball offers instead is an experience; he invites you to step into a child’s nightmare and imagine how unsettling and terrifying such an encounter would be.
When you’re a child, your whole world is the four walls that make up the home you live in, the adults that inhabit that home, and the feeling that you are safe as long as you remain tucked away inside with those adults on ever-vigilant watch.
Ball turns that safe haven into a house of horrors, stripping away any safety net and plunging an innocent child into darkness, uncertainty, and haunting isolation.
Much of the anxiety-inducing effect is created through chilling sound design. Much like the visuals, Ball employs a ‘less is more approach’ when it comes to sound. It’s primarily static and sound bites from public domain cartoons playing on a television and eerie, off-camera voices — often barely audible — that create considerable unease. There’s no distracting or reassuring score and nothing to take us out of this fully immersive world that feels so real and yet so bewildering.
We’re left trapped in this disconcerting space between reality and a discombobulated dreamscape.
It’s often oppressively quiet, but it’s the kind of silence imbued with so much sound. It’s all those small noises that rattle us, the sounds you think you hear and the ones you can’t be sure of. Was that a creaking door? A hushed whisper? Footsteps in the upstairs bedroom? Is there something or someone hiding in the dark, or is it simply our overactive imagination playing tricks on us?
Who among us hasn’t felt that kind of paralyzing dread as a child or even as an adult waking up alone in the middle of the night to an unexplained sound we aren’t convinced we really heard but can’t pretend doesn’t exist?
It’s the very essence of terror, and Ball mines that universal fear for all its worth.
It doesn’t all work.
It seems unnecessarily long for a film so devoid of action or a narrative arc, and it’s likely to wear on even the most patient of viewers. It could have easily been edited down without losing any of the film’s impact.
There is a couple of unnecessary jump scares that may annoy some viewers, though I personally found them to be quite effective — especially given how much concentration and attention the film requires. These jolts are a bit jarring in a film that succeeds so well through quiet, creeping terror. But, in my opinion, they weren’t enough to detract from the viewing experience.
I vividly remember when The Blair Witch Project came out, surrounded by hype and hullabaloo, shaking up our idea of what it meant to make movie magic and proving how much terror could be created without creating much of anything.
It was a film that either scared you to your core or left you shaking your head, wondering how such a “nothing” film could become such a phenomenon.
I believe you could infer a great deal about someone from whether they found Blair Witch brilliant or boring. That film relies so heavily on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps, banking on the idea that what we can conjure up in our heads is far more nightmare-inducing than anything you could create with special effects or splashy visuals.
Skinamarink, like Blair Witch, is a film about fear itself, and it asks the audience to imagine what it would be like if they found themselves in a similar situation.
A film like that either succeeds or fails entirely based on how willing a viewer is to be as much a storyteller as a passive observer.
For someone with an overactive imagination who finds fear in the unknown, Blair Witch frightened me in a way few horror films ever do. It’s the kind of film that left me visibly shaken, making an indelible impression. My jaw dropped the first time someone described that film as tedious and uneventful.
But I realized there are viewers who, in order to experience fear, need to see it… not just feel it.
Like BLAIR WITCH, SKINAMARINK asks you to feel the fear, and your ability to do so will hinge on your patience and your willingness to paint a picture you’re not being shown.
Can you connect with your memories of childhood fear and step into the shoes of the film’s young protagonist?
If so, you may very well agree with many reviews hailing this as one of the most unnerving, unsettling, and truly harrowing films ever. If not, it’s quite likely you’ll be dismayed and disappointed with the unwarranted hype.
However you experience Skinamarink, it most assuredly is an experience — and one I strongly encourage you to take a chance on.
It’s sure to be one of the most memorable horror films of the year and, perhaps, one of the most memorable in many recent years.