As is the case for any self-respecting horror fan, the subject of Kyle Edward Ball’s divisive but impossible-to-ignore minimalist sensation, Skinamarink, has been lighting up my group chats.
“Did you like it?” “Will I like it?” “What is it?”
Friends, I’ll tell you what I tell everyone when I’m asked. I simply do not know. I don’t know if I like it myself, and I certainly can’t unreservedly recommend it to even my most open-minded arthouse-loving pals. When I can’t even land on a position because my mind changes on Skinamarink with each successive time I watch it, how can I recommend it to you, dear readers?
But that puzzle of how, or if, to recommend a film is something that every horror fan struggles with, don’t we? Someone asks you whether a particular horror movie is up their alley, or worse, just to make a recommendation out of thin air, and so begins an internal struggle. It’s not like someone asking you to recommend a music artist or album and them not liking it. The worst you can expect there is your friend giving you side-eye because you recommended Aphex Twin or Squarepusher and now their hearing is damaged. With horror, if you don’t tread carefully, you could end up traumatizing or alienating your pals for life. One wrong step, one miscalculated recommendation of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, and your friends and family will never look at you the same again, if they look at you at all.
Skinamarink is not likely to scar someone for life, though it’s not out of the question. It’s ultra-minimalist, to the point where a huge portion of the movie is staring at a static shot of a wall. There are jump-scares, arguably the scariest things about the movie, but the real horror of the movie (besides, to naysayers, the horror of sitting through it when you could be watching the latest Last of Us) is the ever-present anticipation of what’s around the corner. You’re watching a horror movie, right? Something is bound to pop out from under that bed or crawl out of that TV, Sadako-style.
But then…Skinamarink ends. It’s as frustrating as any movie I’ve seen, and retroactively makes the experience you’ve had up to that point seem, well, pointless. It begs the question, for me, whether it’s appropriate to assess a movie based only on the experience of watching it at the time, or does its aftermath and implications always play a part?
Let me back up. Skinamarink is about two young siblings, Kevin and Kaylee, in 1995 who find themselves suddenly alone and trapped in their house after one suffers a head injury. The doors and windows disappear, and various spooky incidents occur, including a disembodied voice which implies that it has tremendous power and is looking to wield it against Kevin in particular. To even get this much from Skinamarink requires turning on subtitles and paying very close attention, even while the movie seems to dare you not to. It is frustratingly-minimal, and you will find yourself wondering what you are (and aren’t) looking at for much of its running time, perhaps squinting at the screen to see if there’s some little detail in the background that you’re supposed to be seeing. There is not and you are not.
I’m not sure how to phrase this in a way that makes it sound less like a cop-out, but Skinamarink is kind of a horror movie blank slate. It’s whatever you want it to be. On its bare walls, you can project your own childhood trauma, or the half-remembered details of the night terrors that you still have. People have told me that details of the house, spare as they are, feel hauntingly familiar to them, like the trim around the walls, door frames, and ceiling or the toys scattered about. They’ve told me that the disembodied voices sound chillingly like their own siblings or their parents. The long stretches of silence remind them, and me, of nights alone in my room, staring at a corner of a ceiling and wondering what lurks there. Was that a bug? The shadow of someone lurking just below or behind me? The strange familiarity is compounded by the fact that Skinamarink, shot for only fifteen thousand dollars in Kyle Edward Ball’s parents home in Edmonton, Alberta, feels like it could be the suburban homes that my fellow horror pals grew up in, or my own. Bungalows in Canadian suburbs–maybe suburbs in general–don’t vary all that much, it turns out.
Skinamarink perhaps works better as a short film, which in this case was the basis of it. Kyle Edward Ball’s 30-minute short Heck feels a lot like a trimmed-down version of the feature-length Skinamarink, and in its compressed format may well be more effective. But it, perhaps, loses something as well. I think those meditative moments in the feature, which Heck lacks, or at least has less of, are essential to the experience. Skinamarink wants your mind to wander. It wants you to think about how this could be your house and your room.
I guess the question is whether or not Skinamarink‘s blank slate and that vague familiarity is enough. A film with the capacity to stir me towards recalling childhood fears should be a pretty successful one, at least in theory. And it’s not like horror movies always–or perhaps even mostly–provide a satisfying ending, either. I forgive Alex Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), which has one of my least-favourite endings ever that betrays nearly everything established before it, because the rest of the movie is French Extremity nastiness of the sort that I crave sometimes, and it features one of my favourite scenes. I can similarly forgive many other found-footage films whose intentional lack of fidelity mean that you’re staring at what could be static for long periods of time, in hopes of seeing something interesting in the background. Am I, then, being too hard on ol’ Skinny?
Here’s the thing though. I have gone back and forth on Skinamarink every time I’ve watched it. But I have also watched it several times in a fairly short period. Since last August of 2022 when I first saw Skinamarink at the Fantasia International Film Festival until it came to the Shudder streaming service last month, I suddenly found myself with access to Skinamarink whenever, wherever I want. As a result of that, I have, at the time of this writing, seen Skinamarink six times. It is baffling in the way that it draws me in each time, and continues to do so despite the fact that I don’t particularly like it. I have it on right now as I write this, its vibes seeping in from another monitor, occasionally punctuating the silence with a jump scare that, by now, I know is coming.
In between my perhaps-too-frequent viewings, I’ve been watching ancillary Skinamarink content, like one from Twitter user Zach Silberberg where Joe Biden finds himself in the Skinamarink house, chillingly using AI technology.
It should be no surprise that even the director behind such accessible works as Twin Peaks and Eraserhead, David Lynch has become a fan of Skinamarink, as shown in this clip where he sends a gift to the producers of “Shrinky Dink” at a premiere.
Comedian Hoff Matthews’ Skinamarink 2 picks the story up 28 years later, where Kevin has grown accustomed to the wacky happenings in the house. Well, most of them.
There’s an argument to be made that the ancillary Skinama-content is more compelling than the film itself. It’s funny and even a little scary and is, above all else, pretty short. Obviously, though, none of it would exist if Skinamarink didn’t either. And if there’s one thing I can say I’m sure about when it comes to Skinamarink, it is certainly extant. As of this writing, the microbudget Skinamarink is an unqualified commercial success. It’s made about 2.1 million dollars worldwide, which is approximately 140 times its budget. In a year where this and Damien Leone’s Terrifier 2 have been big surprises in theatres (neither of them exactly critical darlings, though), it’s very impressive, especially when Skinamarink is so divisive even among horror fans. It’s a wonder that anything approaching a mainstream audience is even rolling the dice on it out of sheer word of mouth. As a measure of success, Kyle Edward Ball certainly has that going for him.
I’m keenly aware that this article seems to have no point (like certain movies I know). It, at times, may sound like I am telling you to run far away from Skinamarink, or perhaps to approach it with caution. I am not telling you to do that. Instead, I’m offering that if you go in with eyes and mind open, ready to allow the experience to seep in, maybe you too will find yourself in its grasp. Maybe you’ll see in Kyle Edward Ball’s nightmare what I see in it, sometimes. And maybe you’ll figure out a way into the narrative – through familiarity, ironic distance, or something else. Maybe you too will be Skinamarinked.
Sachin Hingoo is a contributing editor at The Cultural Gutter and is trapped in a house with no windows, doors, or other means of egress. And he’s about to lose his streak in Duolingo!
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