When I was a young child– too young to properly begin my journey into horror cinema, but old enough to have a healthy interest in monsters– I asked my father what made scary movies, well, scary. My dad paused, and said, “Sympathy and empathy.” It’s as succinct a response as any, at least as any that could reasonably be given to a seven-year-old; we’re scared because the characters on screen are scared, and we sympathize with their plight. More than perhaps any other genre, horror works because we project ourselves into the shoes of its protagonists.
Skinamarink, the new viral horror sensation from first-time director Kyle Edward Ball, is on one level a radical extreme of this truism: Ball places us, almost literally, into the perspective of two frightened children as they deal with unknown– and perhaps unknowable– terrors, this minimum of exposition or distancing framework allowing us to sympathize and empathize with them on an almost primal level. But it’s also a scary movie in an entirely different sense; it lies so far beyond the realm of rational classification, and plays so successfully on the uncanny feelings of the subconscious, that it almost seems to exude a sort of malevolent energy in its own right. You’re not just frightened for the characters; watching Skinamarink, it’s easy to feel scared of the movie itself.
The official plot synopsis of Skinamarink reads, “Two children wake up in the middle of the night to find their father is missing, and all the windows and doors in their home have vanished.” This is accurate, I suppose, in the same sense that Inland Empire is “The story of a woman in trouble.” What one needs to understand is that Skinamarink is often nearly non-representational in its avant-garde approach to horror. The entire film takes place within the confines of a darkened, suburban house somewhere in the outer reaches of 1995, and much of it consists of dim shots of nominally innocuous sights– a ceiling fan, a flickering nightlight, a CRT television blaring a seemingly endless loop of public domain, depression-era cartoons– often silent save for the roar of tape hiss.
Those two kids are in the house, of course, but we rarely see more than a silhouette in the darkness or a hand grabbing a toy. We hear them speak– not like child actors reading dialogue, but in the marble-mouthed cadence of actual children. Their words are sometimes, but not always, subtitled; on more than one occasion they are completely inaudible, and those subtitles are our only indication that anything is being said at all. Kids being kids, they’re not very good at communicating what’s actually happening, but we can glean that something is very, very wrong.
Their father is, indeed, missing, though we do occasionally catch glimpses of him, always facing away from the camera. The status of their mother is unclear; one of the children mentions hearing her crying, but later they wonder whether their father has left to be with her (“I don’t want to talk about Mom,” one of the children chillingly responds). There are passing references to brother Kevin sleepwalking. Aspects of the house– doors, windows, the toilet– seem to appear and disappear at random, sometimes in clear view. Then, of course, there is the other voice, which growls increasingly alarming invitations to the children.
It’s tempting to refer to Skinamarink as a “found footage” horror film, not because the characters are filming each other, a la The Blair Witch Project, but because it feels like something you might find, unmarked, on a dusty shelf or a forgotten hard drive, and try to puzzle out just what the hell it is you’re watching. Skinamarink feels like it’s been passed through so many generations that its actual age seems indeterminate: picture a low-grade digital rip of a fuzzy VHS transfer of an old, weatherbeaten film print (which may or may not have been shot in focus in the first place). Much of the tension arises from scanning for shapes amidst the grain, trying to first discern what you’re looking at, then to separate the terrifying from the merely uncanny. Long stretches of this film, frankly, consist of nothing happening, but when it does happen, your blood will run cold.
Of course, by pure serendipity, this form of “found footage” is precisely how Skinamarink has largely been consumed so far. Though it only officially releases this week, Skinamarink has gained a formidable reputation over the past several months; following a security breach during a virtual festival screening, it has been heavily pirated and breathlessly hyped on TikTok and other online forums– a rare case, in the social media age, of a true word-of-mouth phenomenon unforced by the hand of Viral Marketing. Ball has voiced reservations regarding this turn of events– no one likes their work given out for free before they have a chance to sell it– but it’s hard to imagine a more suitable fate for a film that manifests like an urban myth. Stumbling across Skinamarink feels like discovering the tape from The Ring, and, watching it, one can easily believe they now have seven days to live.
It’s not difficult to see why the film has struck such a nerve among the Very Online souls who have unearthed it. Millennials, perhaps more than any other generation, are governed by nostalgia (for all their navel-gazing, I don’t recall many Baby Boomers as concerned with the George of the Jungle movie as my peers are with the voice-casting of Mario). Skinamarink harnesses this nostalgia– from its analog aesthetic to the familiar vintage toys littering the floor– and subverts it into something dark and disturbing. Childhood is more, after all, than Dunkaroos and Trapper Keepers; it’s fear of the unknown, the inability to describe the creeping terrors that keep you up at night. Ball takes all those cozy ‘90s-kids-remember signifiers and uses them to plunge you back into the terrifying, nearly subverbal nightmares of youth. Mass entertainments like Stranger Things and Ready Player One use nostalgia as an inviting hook; Skinamarink uses it as an edge weapon.
Of course, writing about such an indescribable film is, as the saying goes, a bit like dancing about architecture. The point is the mood, the feeling of being submerged into this dark, liminal world. I often say in the case of narratively challenging films that one should ideally put down their phone and give the film their fullest attention. Obviously, I advocate that approach for this film (as well as, you know, all films), but this is a rare case where I suspect the film’s terrors might be effective upon even a divided attention (how else can one explain its success among TikTokkers?). Skinamarink is one of the most singular horror movies in years, its dark aura so overpowering that even being in the same room with it is enough to give you the heebie jeebies. It’s not so much that it will haunt your nightmares; there’s a very good chance that this is what your nightmares look like already.
dir. Kyle Edward Ball
Opens Friday, 1/13 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre (as well as, bizarrely, AMC Boston Common)