Everyone’s had that defining moment growing up where you watch a scary movie that just changes everything for you. Sometimes a horror film can do much more than simply frighten you. Sometimes it can just feel wrong. Like you shouldn’t be watching it. Like half of your brain is begging you to just turn it off and turn on a light or two, but the other half is what keeps your eyes glued to the terror unfolding on the screen. It can be a transfixing experience.
Skinamarink is one of those movies. Scary? Yes. Creepy? Definitely. But the word that’s been used most often to describe this lo-fi nightmare is Cursed, and it certainly does wield that kind of sinister power. I’m not the first nor the last person to call this thing the scariest movie of the year despite the year having barely begun, but it throws down one hell of an unholy gauntlet.
Mileage will vary from viewer to viewer as it always does of course, but for those willing to sink down into the unnerving depths of Skinamarink’s house of horrors (or those unable to escape its grasp as it drags you under) you’ll be completely transported. And then stranded there. Alone. In the dark. Is that breathing you’re hearing? Did something just move? Is something in that doorway?
Written and directed by Kyle Edward Ball in his feature debut, Skinamarink takes place over one endless and sleepless night in the home of two young children, four-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) and six-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault). While normally in the care of their father (Ross Paul), the siblings awaken at God-knows-what hour and discover he’s nowhere to be found.
Confused but not yet panicked, the pair wander downstairs and make the even more alarming discovery that all of the windows and most of the doors of their house are gone. Just completely vanished. Other things disappear before their eyes only to suddenly reappear elsewhere, sometimes in unnatural (and purposefully spooky) positions like up on the ceiling. Also the lights don’t appear to be working. Why would they? And there’s something calling out to them from the dark, just waiting to strike.
Skinamarink operates on a wavelength that’s simultaneously in the analog past and the digital present. Working with cinematographer Jamie McRae, the entire film has a grainy look, kind of like an old videotape. For the majority of the film, the cameras appear fixed throughout various rooms and halls of the house, remaining still in whatever vantage point they’ve intentionally been placed in. Ball, who also edited the film, cuts between shots in a security-cam-like manner, helping create his intended horror atmosphere and allowing for a couple of easy but no less successful jump scares. When the camera does finally move, it only heightens that sense of wrongness that the movie holds. it’s hard to not tense up with severe dread anticipation as it slowly pans up or to the side, waiting to reveal whatever may or may not be lurking just out of frame.
It’s very much like a found footage movie despite not actually being one and that distinct tone is undoubtedly what’s helped it attain Cursed status the same way films like The Blair Witch Project or Cannibal Holocaust have in the past. Ball is tapping into a very specific yet eerily universal childhood experience; those times when the fear of the dark and the unknown, even in a supposedly safe place like your own home, feels so big that it could just swallow you up. When it’s the middle of the night and the walls of your room suddenly don’t feel as familiar. When, for a brief moment, you feel almost untethered from reality, lost in the fog of whatever has taken hold of your imagination.
It’s your very imagination that Skinamarink is turning against you. The film lingers on ominous shots of dark halls and doorways, making you question whether something is actually standing there in the shadows or not. The sound design is also key here, where distorted whispers and the crackle of static play their own kinds of tricks on your senses. A child’s whimpers and labored breaths prove more effective than mere screams, although rest assured those are here to scare you as well. You steadily lose trust in your eyes and ears to the point where you’re almost just scaring yourself, doing the film’s job for it.
Despite its evil home video aesthetic and its 1990s setting, Ball’s debut is something that could only come to life through our plugged in and online present. It very much has the feel of infamous creepypastas, scary videos and other chilling corners of the internet that have haunted those who’ve grown up with one foot in the digital world. It’s very fitting that Jane Schoenbrun, the director of last year’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, has praised this as the most terrifying thing they’ve seen in years. While a significantly different film, their story of a lonely young girl that gets sucked into an online challenge very much exists in the same undefinable plane as Skinamarink.
While not a perfect film (I find it to be a good bit too long) and Ball’s experimental style doesn’t exactly scream “mass appeal”, there’s no denying that Skinamarink is hellishly effective at what it’s doing. It made me have to check on my toddler, sleeping alone in his crib down the hall in my house. Naturally, as soon as I looked at him on the monitor he began to toss and turn, as if struggling against some unseen nightmare without the protection of his father. Maybe this movie really is cursed. After Skinamarink’s final heart-stopping scene practically reaches out of the screen to grab you, chances are you may believe it too.
‘Skinamarink’ slinks into theaters January 13th and will be streaming exclusively on Shudder soon.