If I were an ambitious horror film producer like Jason Blum, the first thing I would do this year offers a contract to “Skinamarink” writer-director Kyle Edward Ball. But it would be a unique agreement, analogous to the one Mel Brooks made with David Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man” after Brooks saw and adored “Eraserhead.”
“Skinamarink” is unlike most horror movies. Made for $15,000, it’s a silent and practically plotless experimental horror film — a film with hardly any humans in it (though a handful of kid actors lurk in the background), consisting primarily of static shots taken at what appears to be 3:00 a.m. inside the director’s boyhood home.
The film will premiere on January 13 at select megaplexes, which is the ideal venue for it; you want to experience it with an audience, similar to a séance.
I found “Skinamarink” to be frightening, but it’s a picture that requires (and rewards) patience, and thus it might provoke resentment (not to mention abysmal grades from Cinemascore). Nevertheless, if you accept it, you may have a sense of the strange.
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The lights are dim, the rooms and corridors are mostly deserted, and a typical image is a ground’s-eye view of a carpeted hall, or an upward-angled shot of a door leading to blackness, or the flat messy tableau of a playroom with Lego pieces scattered about — and then, with unsettling randomness, another piece is tossed in from the side, and we cannot see who (or what) is doing the tossing.
As “Skinamarink” traverses these banal household areas, with each shot given as another piece of the spookiest puzzle, the film begs us to rekindle every childhood nightmare of a monster lurking in the shadows at midnight. There are sights that hint to the supernatural, yet the majority of what we perceive is not supernatural (like a framed doorway that suddenly vanishes).
The film’s goal is to have us examine the pictures for signals, a task that becomes increasingly mesmerizing as we discover that, sure, there is a demon here, but it’s not like other demons in films. Horror flicks frequently take place in the dark. “Skinamarink” is one of the few works capable of evoking the actual fear of a godforsaken night.
The film has even less of a plot than the 1977 classic “Eraserhead,” yet its dread-drenched, slowly emerging mental nightmare atmosphere owes a great deal to that film.
All of it is infused with Lynchian mystique: the sluggish pace, the corridors in which a murky half-light seems to flicker with the very pulse of electricity, the soundtrack drenched in imperceptible white noise, with old music heard in the background (in this case, mostly from old cartoons playing on a television)
The influences extend further. This television, with its sinister glare and stuttering cartoon, is positioned as if it were a portal, which makes one think of the film “Poltergeist,” but there are no apparent spirits emerging from it.
“Skinamarkink” is comparable to “Poltergeist” by “Vampyr” director Carl Th. Dreyer. The demon poetics are also rooted in a documentary-like stalker ambiance reminiscent of the unsettling start of Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” in which a serial killer’s spotlight illuminated the shag-carpeted stairs of the home he was entering.
Kyle Edward Ball, a Canadian, is undoubtedly a connoisseur of semi-primitive semi-underground horror, however, he employs his own visionary eccentricity. “Skinamarkink” was filmed on analog film with ancient cameras, and the cinematographer, Jamie McRae, does an outstanding job of saturating the visuals with 1970s-era grain.
The atmosphere is pre-technological. The title informs us that the film is set in 1995, which makes sense given that this was the last year before the Internet’s growth.
You could say that the Web itself displaced demons in human imaginations, as it itself was a type of demon – a metaphysical connecting force. There is a malevolent spirit at work in “Skinamarink,” but it cannot be divorced from the atmosphere of dread that governs our minds.
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A 4-year-old kid, Kevin (Lucas Paul), and his 6-year-old sister, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetrault), whose parents have fled and left them alone in the house, are presented as characters. We see their legs or hear their speech via subtitles.
And we hear a low voice whispering, which we initially believe to be the father before realizing is the demon. He speaks as if he were a serial killer, with a frighteningly icy and calm authority. “Kaylee disobeyed my instructions,” he continues, “so I removed her voice.” We wonder, Did he actually? What transpires in “Skinamarink” occurs so stealthily that you are not merely frightened, but also convinced.
But you also want to believe your eyes, and in the film’s great closing scene, we finally get the vision we’ve been waiting for: a revelation of evil that has emerged not only from the next realm but also from our own. The film is the gateway that connects the audience to the hereafter.
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