Arthouse horror ‘Skinamarink’ relies on viewers to fill in the blanks
Have you ever had that dream where you walk around your house in the middle of the night, convinced you are actually awake, and suddenly realize something is amiss? You find an exterior door open, implying that some intruder entered while you slept. Furniture is missing or out of place. The floor plan of the house has been inexplicably altered, adding or deleting entire rooms. Family members are missing.
Panic gradually escalates as you find yourself in an increasingly alien environment.
The book "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine" dedicates a chapter to idiopathic nightmares and dream disturbances associated with sleep-wake transitions.
Authors Tore Nielsen and Antonio Zadra describe false awakenings as being dream imagery in which the person is falsely waking up from sleep or from a dream, which leads to a state of "confusion while dreaming as to whether one is actually awake or asleep." Type 2 false awakenings are accompanied by a foreboding atmosphere and may include "hallucinations of ominous or anxiety-provoking sounds or strange apparitions of persons or monsters."
Been there, done that. I have also experienced sleep paralysis, a similar phenomenon that occurs between sleep and wakefulness. The accompanying hypnopompic hallucinations — involving the presence of a dangerous presence in the room — are as persuasive as they are terrifying.
The events depicted in “Skinamarink” appear to transpire within that murky borderland between the dream state and full, waking consciousness. “Skinamarink” is best described as an experimental horror film. It is the feature directorial debut of Kyle Edward Ball, who also wrote the screenplay. “Skinamarink” was released in select theaters on Jan. 13 through IFC Midnight. On Feb. 2, the film debuted on the horror streaming service Shudder.
The film’s official synopsis explains: “Following a bizarre accident, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother wake up one morning to discover all the doors and windows inside of their house have vanished. All the phones are dead, and the cable is out as well.”
The children — Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) — search the house for their father, but find they are alone. Their mother also is absent, and it is implied that she has not been present in the house for some time. Trying to cope with their situation, the children relocate to the living room where they watch old VHS tapes of cartoons on a television.
Doors and windows disappear. Strange and inexplicable sounds emanate from upstairs. Lights go on and off by themselves.
“Skinamarink” is set in 1995 and features an intentional lo-fi tone that showcases grainy, often indecipherable visuals, long takes, and an unnerving color palette. Some reviewers pigeonhole it as found footage horror, but that isn’t compatible with the nature of the film’s experimental format. Ball omits more than he reveals. In terms of the “show, don’t tell” mantra, he provides the bare minimum needed to establish narrative building blocks. There’s nothing conventional about how the director conveys this unsettling, deliberately ambiguous story.
The viewer perceives their own subjective horror. Ball relies upon his audience to bring their own childhood trauma, their own abandonment issues, their own deep-seated fear and intense shame to the table.
“Skinamarink” is a twisted Rorschach test that will evoke different reactions from each person who accepts the challenge of sitting through the 100-minute run time. Its effectiveness is dependent upon the viewer’s willingness to commune with certain core phobias and childhood memories of irrational — yet vivid — dread.
Because of the film’s perplexing and often impenetrable dream logic, nothing depicted can be taken literally. Ball injects plenty of potential clues through eerie visuals, vague dialogue, and scattered bits of symbolism. Just when you think you have the mystery solved, though, something comes along and overturns your theory.
“Skinamarink” is an incomplete series of creepy sketches, and Ball asks the viewer to fill in the blank spaces with horrors plucked from their own imagination. Because it necessitates some level of viewer interface and because it obliges the audience to visit potentially uncomfortable memories or suppressed emotions, it is not for everyone. It is simultaneously tedious and terrifying. It is both provocative and frustrating.
For those willing to lose themselves in its atmospheric horror, “Skinamarink” is a surreal mix of high strangeness, acute anxiety and reflective melancholy. For others, it will likely come across as an overstretched, overindulgent art film that is more exasperating than frightening.
Ball made the film for a mere $15,000. According to Box Office Mojo, “Skinamarink” has grossed $1.9 million to date. That’s a good sign that someone in Hollywood will want to see what Ball can do with a larger budget.