Skinamarink is an expertly-crafted horror film that barely nudges into the land of narrative film, but you need to work to tap into all of the tension and fright. It requires the audience’s unbroken attention, dedication, and above all, their investment in wanting to be scared.
To describe Skinamarink as having a plot or a story would be grossly overselling the structure of it, but there is certainly a presented framework for caring about what may or may not be happening. The film follows two young children (Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault) as they discover their father has vanished. And maybe their mother too. And possibly any potential connection with the world outside their house beyond a television that is constantly showing old timey cartoons.
Perhaps it is also unfair to say that the film follows these children when the reality is that it only lets us engage with limited impressions of these kids. We see their feet, we hear their voices, but beyond that they are merely suggestions of innocent humanity that will drum up nostalgia and protective reflexes in the audience.
Even with such carefully constrained access to characters within Skinamarink, there is enough emotion coming through the screen to develop a relationship and, by extension, concern for their welfare. Writer/ director Kyle Edward Ball uses restraint to give a measured dose of motivation here. These kids seem sweet enough and their uneasy predicament can be terrifying for even most adults.
No matter how much is said about Skinamarink’s sprinkled nods towards structured storytelling, the core of the film is experimental cinema. The camera is not always in focus, and when it is the frame can show an empty hallway or an electric outlet for longer than is comfortable. That discomfort instilled in the very bones of the film’s style only enhances the damn creepy atmosphere carved into these empty spaces. The grainy and repetitive visuals, paired with children’s dialogue, no score, and unpredictable editing in Skinamarink would make Paranormal Activity feel as polished as Times Square.
By not directly serving commonly accessible horror, Skinamarink relies on the audience leaning in to engage deeply. Just like a whisperer either draws in the listener or alienates them entirely, this film is bound to polarize. While arguments about whether or not this is the cinematic analog for “The Emperor’s New Clothes” there is something fundamentally refreshing about a film not underestimating the audience. The film believes that people will be invested enough to lean in close to listen to its whispers.
For those who give in to the film’s premise and immerse themselves into the film’s horror, Skinamarink is downright terrifying. Each unusually framed moment only escalates whatever fears might be simmering in the audience’s imagination and it plays with that fear like a cat plays with a dying mouse. Yes, the film requires investment by the viewer, but that investment has great returns.
No way in hell will Skinamarink be universally loved. Frankly, it is shocking that it is getting a wide theatrical release. But for those interested in experimental film and yearning for something they have not seen before, they are in for a treat.