Director: Kyle Edward Ball
Stars: Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault, Jamie Hill
Only a handful of words into this review and I’ve already misled you. To say that Skinamarink even has ‘stars’ suggests a level of human presence above the film’s overwhelming sense of absence. Ross Paul, Jaime Hill, Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault who appear as the focal family aren’t so much featured actors as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visages lost in the fug of an ambient nightmare; a descent into creepypasta uncertainty that plays out like an experimental exercise. Director Kyle Edward Ball reduces horror down to its barest components. Sound. Suspense. Suggestion. This viral breakout from Canada will confound many, even those who have the patience and resolve for so-called ‘slow cinema’ (it challenged this viewer). But, like Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it represents another example of genre-bending that’s both reliant on and engendered by exceedingly limited means. Indeed, the main star of Skinamarink is a poorly lit and sparsely furnished house.
Playing as close to a film adaptation of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as we’re likely to get, Skinamarink takes us back to 1995 with a murky soup of VHS grain and the assumption that we’ve stumbled into found footage. It’s nighttime. Always nighttime. Before even particularly meeting them, the family’s parents (Ross Paul, Jamie Hill) disappear, leaving their young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Tetreault) to fend for themselves. Little more than toddlers, they find themselves trapped in a home that seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. Windows and doors have a habit of vanishing completely. The kids can hear morning birdsong outside, but within their prison there is nothing but perpetual gloom.
As far as COVID-19-era horror goes, this is both the subtlest and most pervasive evocation of both the sense of confinement and abandonment that the various lockdowns evoked. The meaninglessness of time is one thing, but Ball’s shot selection and the pace of his editing unmoors us from the regular rhythms and signifiers of conventional cinema. Here minutes can be spent on a doorframe, a skirting board, or even dimensionless space that defies identification. The passing of a child’s foot or hand is the exception, not the rule. Far more than even the initial Paranormal Activity features, Ball has stripped the form down to the barest of information, where active waiting on the viewer’s part is the action of the film itself.
If there’s a star other than the house in Skinamarink it is the negative spaces between its walls. Frequently we’ll find ourselves confronted with ill-defined noise as the camera struggles to make sense of the murk. Focus is sought after but rarely maintained. Through these methods the film unnervingly replicates the real sensation of being lost in the dark. Without visual handholds, the mind is all too quick to apply meaning and significance to the cloudiest information. Was that a face? Were those eyes? Then inaudible dialogue is given frightening clarity through the simplest of subtitles. “Come upstairs”. Okay, fine, but who supposedly said that?
With a significantly creepy aesthetic established, Ball doesn’t so much develop on his idea as pursue it mercilessly to its own slippery conclusion. Most will encounter Skinamarink at home, on TV screens or laptops, where it is preferably approached with undivided attention and the lights off. Still, make sure you’re feeling alert. The exceptionally slow rhythms here combined with the nuanced sonic hum that underscores it all can make this one play like a downright sinister ASMR exercise. With so much removed from the conventional narrative experience, Ball’s reliance on quite/loud scares is irksome, but also understandable (on first watch one of these did jerk me awake). Skinamarink is best approached when you’re feeling fresh and apprehensive. Ball acting as his own editor might’ve made this more of a marathon than he had intended. 100 minutes in this suburban hellscape is quite an endurance, even with all semblance of time removed. Like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (and The Blair Witch Project before it), the power here lies in the resolutely unknowable. Ball gives us just enough rope to hang ourselves.