Skinamarink review

Skinamarink is an inkblot for your fears, and I guess I’m not scared of any of this

1.5 out of 5 stars

Minimalism has traditionally done wonders for horror movies. It’s just about the only genre to benefit from overt limitations in technology. Consider Paranormal Activity, for example, which consists mainly of found footage from a grainy, consumer-level camera. It would be possible to film a raunchy comedy or Victorian drama with the same constraints, but it’s harder to imagine what added value that might bring. Horror works and endures as a genre partially because it can shapeshift endlessly and continue to do the one thing it needs to do: scare.

Here is where I have to disclaim something. Recommending horror movies and movies in general has always been an Achilles’ heel to me from the very beginnings of my work as a film critic. When you see a lot of movies and a lot of the movies you see are inevitably horror movies, you get the same question from people: What’s the SCARIEST horror movie you’ve ever seen? “I want to be scared, recommend something that is TRULY SCARY.” While I don’t doubt for a second that a movie that will shake you to your core exists out there, I cannot for the life of me identify it. Our fears are the sum of our life experiences, and those are rarely ones we share in perfect sync with others.

I mention this because I think there are people who have already stopped reading at this point (after seeing my star rating) who are never going to watch Skinamarink, Kyle Edward Ball’s experimental horror film that exists at the crossroads of found footage and installation art, and who may very well find it potent nightmare-fuel if they did. I have rarely come across such an example of subjective horror — not subjective as in a point of view, but subjective in the sense that it works almost as an inkblot test of your own fears. As it turns out, none of these are mine.

Skinamarink unfolds as a series of grainy, low-lit, anarchically-framed relatively long takes. The camera is often but not always static, and any human characters are kept mostly out of frame, glimpsed as fuzzy shapes or abstract limbs. The grain in each shot pulses and moves, tricking the eye into seeing things that aren’t there; what’s there is a door jamb, a pile of Legos, the corner of a couch. Over time, we work out the semblance of plot. Two children have awoken in the middle of the night to find their parents missing and their home altered in some ways. Doors and windows seem to have disappeared, as has the toilet and other general landmarks of the home. Dialogue is sparse and often incomprehensible, though subtitles are provided on-screen to decode the warbled baby talk and near-silent whispers that saturate the soundtrack.

Owing more to forms of media far removed from traditional horror narratives, Skinamarink exists somewhere between the Asylum mockbuster, the work of the recently departed icon Michael Snow and chintzy TikTok horror trends. It’s extremely easy to simply look at the film’s aesthetic qualities and imagine it playing on a loop on a screen inside a glass box in a dramatically lit corner of a modern art museum. Ball truly applies experimental aesthetics to the barest bones of a horror film in a way that’s creative and interesting to me on paper, but that doesn’t quite translate to 100 minutes of terror. 

Skinamarink plays on notions of terror that we can all, to some extent, relate to. It’s about fear of the unknown and of images that we cannot bring ourselves to trust even if there is no alternative. The child sees their Legos; they are the same Legos that they always see in the exact same spot where they always see them, but the lack of other comforting landmarks suddenly turns them into an ominous threat. Ball taps into a primal aspect of fear that just about any child has felt — but that perhaps not all adults still feel. That’s the only way I can explain it as someone who sleeps rather soundly every night and has rarely experienced night terrors, sleep paralysis or other sleep-related disorders that would bring one to live through something like Skinamarink. The film is a key to unlock something that might be buried deep inside of you — but it might not.

I do not have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, but watching Skinamarink gives me an idea of how these people might feel. I can appreciate the aesthetic and even thematic intentions behind the film, but, try as I might, I never could tap into its frequency. That a film this experimental sticks to the landing for ONE HUNDRED MINUTES when I’m sure a 10-minute short would suffice is admirable; that a film this difficult is getting a theatrical release in this day and age is nothing short of a miracle. I am tickled pink at the idea that “Wavelength with jump scares” is even a thing, but I just wish I had been able to tap into it properly. You may find yourself disagreeing with me… and I certainly hope you do. ■

Skinamarink (directed by Kyle Edward Ball)

Skinamarink opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 13.  


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