You watch enough horror movies and it becomes increasingly difficult to be scared or disturbed. After all, this is coming from the same writer who didn’t even flinch at torture porn such as Martyrs, or finds the current output of horror films to be tame and generic or just fun popcorn cinema at best. Indeed, the 2020’s have been some of the finer years for horror in recent years (exhilarating releases such as Possessor, Malignant, and Mad God instantly spring to mind), but rarely one with the power to knock one’s socks off. Which is why I thank God for Skinamarink, a quiet and deeply upsetting horror movie and one of the most unnerving I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t exactly break the mold, but it’s so ruinously effective at what it does that it makes for a tremendously memorable and powerful experience.
Directed by newcomer Kyle Edward Ball, Skinamarink began as Heck, a short film by the same director. The short film acts as a sort of precursor to the film we all now know, following an identical style and atmosphere. In this short film, a child is woken up in the middle of the night, they’re all alone and the lights stay off. The child is only kept company by the living room TV blaring the sounds of old cartoons. Eventually, days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years as the child is consumed by the darkness. The 2022 film, Skinamarink, has a similar story to it, about two children who are alone in the house, as doors and windows begin to disappear from the house, and objectings clinging onto the ceiling. As they spend their time watching cartoons while awaiting their father to arrive, they soon realize they may not be alone in the house after all, as an inhuman voice in the darkness keeps calling for them.
Skinamarink became a viral phenomenon late into 2022, thanks to movie piracy websites spreading links to the movie after being leaked during the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival. Shortly before this, Skinamarink got picked up by horror streaming site Shudder, so director Kyle Edward Ball was worried how this leak would affect the deal. Though Shudder insisted on keeping their deal intact, Ball was still understandably upset at the movie leaking; however, his spirits were raised upon seeing how much of a sensation the movie was on TikTok and how so many people seemed to love it. Seeing it as nothing but good buzz towards the film, Kyle Edward Ball embraced the newfound publicity; he doesn’t condone the piracy, but
Skinamarink captures that eerie feeling of walking through a dark house in the middle of the night with ease. The movie was shot in eight days with $15,000, the cinematography being minimal to the extreme, being composed mostly of static shots of empty hallways, walls, ceilings, and the floor, with limited movement in-between. This style has caused a controversy, with some critiquing that this highly minimalist approach makes for a very tedious and boring crawl, while others feel this framework helps add to the claustrophobic and atmospheric nature to the movie. Thankfully, this writer is of the latter; Skinamarink is transcendently liminal and unsettling, deeply the saddest and scariest film we’ve had in years.
The fear of darkness is a typical cliche found in many horror pieces, but so few weaponizes it as effectively as Skinamarink. As the movie delves deeper into madness and dread and the entity keeping the children company becomes increasingly menacing, you’re forced to lean in towards the shots of the black voids in hallways and decipher what may be lurking within. Though you may not be able to see it, your mind fills in the blanks to create something more sinister and unnerving than what the film may be capable of. The tension is so tight you can cut it with a chainsaw, every second feeling like a scary face will leap out at you. Though Skinamarink has its share of jumpscares, each one serves a narrative purpose, with the stakes getting increasingly higher with every stinger.
Nothing is as ruinously effective as horror through the eyes of children; their childish innocence and blissfully-ignorant worldviews put to the test through trials of terror. Seeing young children subjected to such psychological torment within the confines of the house is a horrible sight to see, especially as the entity inside begins toying with the children. The entity in Skinamarink has no known look, save for a distorted and blurry face shrouded in darkness that you can barely make out. The entity is absolutely one of the most devious and sinister horror movie villains in recent memory, his voice of a commanding authority and manipulative kindness echoing through the halls to lure the children throughout the house. The horror put on display is a hard one to stomach, knowing the children have nowhere to go and no help arriving. The dread never ends in this deeply upsetting movie, all up to the point where you want the movie to mercifully end, not out of boredom but to finally let the nightmare end.
Skinamarink is so much more than a spooky ghost story with a bunch of jumpscares. In fact, it eventually stops feeling like a movie and more like it was plucked out of somewhere in Hell. It’s a unique, transcendent experience with a strangling atmosphere and an unforgettable emotional core. For being so minimal, this is a film that begs to be dissected and discussed to reach a conclusion of what everything is meant to represent. The mixed reception has been quite a sight to behold, and whether I think the criticisms lobbied at this movie are warranted or not, it’s honestly a joy to see a movie so widely mixed and discussed. This movie ruined me forever.