Mysteries and Ambiguity Lie Within the Liminal Nightmare of “Skinamarink”

Kyle Edward Ball’s experimental horror film, Skinamarink, arrives on Thursday on Shudder, granting greater access to audiences who have heard nothing but the title or seen the trailer. A lo-fi success story that survived widespread piracy, Skinamarink pulled in over $1.5 million against a $15,000 budget during its limited theatrical release. Hailed for its usage of liminal space to create a sense of fear and unease among its viewers, Skinamarink has created a hubbub within the horror community. However, its odd storytelling and analog presentation have raised eyebrows among fans seeking a more linear film. Are there enough plot-bones to hang this movie on, or is it only a pastiche of images that nominally make sense?

The story, such as it is, is set in 1995 and involves two kids who slowly realize that they are alone in their house. They can’t find their parents. Doors mysteriously disappear. Rooms seem to change at will. Even the toilet, at one point, whiffs out of existence. In response, the kids do the only things they know how to do. They watch cartoons, play with their toys, and wait for their parents to return.

Visually, Skinamarink looks like it was recorded on a flip phone. Marks and grain permeate the film, sometimes becoming the only sparks of light in what feels like an impenetrable darkness. All the midrange has been pulled from the audio track, making some of the dialogue so incoherent that subtitles are necessary.

Ball places the camera at a child’s height, making everything look huge and out of proportion. The viewer also barely gets to see the faces of the actors. It’s a challenging watch, the opposite of the frenetic camerawork of a found footage film, and the slow pace can be excruciating. Skinamarink offers no clear answers for the situation the children find themselves in. Ask three people what happened in Skinamarink, and you’ll probably get three different answers. The viewer is left to decipher the questions posed, if not the majority of the plot of the film, by themselves.

To be blunt, Skinamarink is bound to piss some people off. It is a movie that begs discussion if, for no other reason, to verify with another human that you did indeed see what you think you saw. I turned to fellow horror fan and BBP! Senior Writer Sachin Hingoo for his thoughts. Sachin is a veteran of the film festival scene, and has watched more arthouse horror films than most people I know. As we discussed Skinamarink, which we have both seen more than once, Sachin could not confirm that he liked the movie.

Sachin: “I have what I think is a tremendous capacity for avant-garde but I just don’t think it’s satisfying enough. I think where I land (or where I last landed} was that you could literally film a blank wall and nothing else, and call it ‘a blank slate for whatever you want it to be,’ you know? Like why even turn on the screen/monitor if you’re not going to give me something?”

Unlike most modern horror movies, there aren’t many jump scares in Skinamarink. There is barely more than a splash of blood. But, as I told Sachin, I think there’s enough in Skinamarink to allow viewers to fill in the blanks, with those blanks being whatever you need them to be. It’s kind of a Mad Lib of a movie.

Sachin: “Does that work as a film? In an Andy Warhol way, maybe. I don’t think even [David] Lynch or [Werner] Herzog at their most esoteric lean quite so much on the audience to fill in those blanks.”

In a loose way, Skinamarink is super-Lynchian, reminding me of visual aspects in Eraserhead and Lynch’s lesser-known Rabbits. But it cannot be dismissed as simply an homage to Lynch or other directors of that ilk. Skinamarink is certainly its own thing. How one reacts to the film could depend on how you feel when you begin watching.

Sachin: “Lynch will definitely throw in red herrings and plot threads that go nowhere and all manner of deviations but I think all his movies have that backbone at minimum. Skinamarink is like one of those deviations in its own film. I think that can work but it doesn’t feel like something meant to be consumed end to end, but like projected in the background in a gallery or at a party where you dip in and out. It’s all vibes, and maybe whether that works for me depends on the day or my mood.”

To be sure, there is an ambient quality to Skinamarink, like a Brian Eno album or an oscillating fan left running in an empty room. On some days, Skinamarink could be a comfort movie. On others, it can burn like a rash in a spot you can’t scratch, undeniable and maddening.

My discussion with Sachin about Skinamarink ended with his cogent point: “I do know that I badly want to like it.” Who wouldn’t want to root for a movie that tries so hard to do something different, elicit fear and dread on primal levels without resorting to slasher tropes or vomit-inducing shaky cameras? As you watch Skinamarink, you know it’s worthy, but you can’t be sure what it’s worthy of.

Within the context of the setting, Skinamarink is about whatever you need it to be. Whatever template you want to throw onto Skinamarink, go ahead. It will stick. There’s a vagueness, a heavy opacity to Skinamarink that renders it flayed open for interpretation. You decide what waits in the shadows. You overlay your fears onto the film. Skinamarink seems to be watching you as carefully as you watch it.

You’ll have a theory about what really happens in Skinamarink. It’s impossible not to. Plenty of ideas have floated around the internet purporting to explain or solve the film’s mysteries. Director Ball knows this, but he is not inclined to help or clue you in on his intentions.

“Everyone’s theory is correct and also no one’s theory is incorrect,” Ball told The Globe and Mail in a January interview. “It’s not my movie any more, it’s yours. And I don’t even know the answer to some questions in the movie. There were parts when I was writing the script that I just don’t know why I wrote that. I felt like I was channelling something, or someone.”

I respect Skinmarink. I appreciate Skinamarink. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure I like Skinamarink. That being said, I don’t believe I can fully recommend it. Not to everyone. This movie isn’t for everyone. You’ll either be totally immersed in the child-sized nightmare world Skinamarink presents, or you’ll be mad that you spent an hour-and-forty-five-minutes of your life watching it. But, like Sachin said, I believe horror fans are going to want to like it, and that itself makes it worth the watch.

Skinamarink is now available in North America on the horror streaming service, Shudder.

Leave a Reply