Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, maybe having been roused by a mysterious noise, and tried to look around the room while your eyes adjusted to the dark? That unsettled feeling is exactly what Kyle Edward Ball’s new horror film, Skinamarink, aims for: an atmosphere where you’re not quite sure if you’re still dreaming, and where every shadow on the wall is imbued with menace. The movie, Ball’s debut feature, has been building buzz on the festival circuit since last summer and became something of a viral sensation even before it arrived in theaters. But although the film’s TikTok success might be algorithmic, the moody clips that have circulated online demonstrate real cinematic purpose.
Skinamarink is light on plot and even lighter on camera movement. It’s made entirely of inscrutable, grainy images that you might spend most of your time trying to decipher before the camera eventually cuts away. The story, such as it is, is bone-chilling: Two kids, Kevin and Kaylee (played by Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault), wake up in the middle of the night to find their father gone; over the course of the evening, the doors and windows in their house start to vanish as well, trapping them in some sort of supernatural domestic prison. But despite that premise, the children’s experiences are presented with deep abstraction and very little narrative structure.
In reality, Skinamarink is just a 100-minute symphony of the vibes being very, very off, a crescendo of creeping dread that eventually overwhelms the viewer. You’ll spend the early portion of Skinamarink wondering just what is going on; whenever something finally does come into focus, the perspective shifts, and the larger mystery endures. The film cost $15,000 Canadian dollars to make and was shot entirely in Ball’s childhood home in Edmonton, lending the work further authenticity.
Is Skinamarink scary? Part of its popularity since its debut at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival lies in its understanding of “liminal horror,” a subgenre that taps into the eeriness of nondescript, abandoned spaces. The movie’s central house has a vaguely retro feel, with wood paneling and outdated, sinister-seeming toys strewn about. And because the action plays out in mostly static shots that are aimed at a wall, or a ceiling, or a piece of furniture, Ball invites the audience to conjure up their own bogeymen. The longer the camera looks at something ostensibly mundane, the harder the viewer tries to find the terrible thing that must be hiding in it. When Kevin calls out for his father, slowly searching for him in the dark, the scene is lit only by an old-fashioned television playing classic cartoons. The setting is akin to a murderer’s home in a grimy 1970s horror movie, and the low-res footage and whispered, panicked dialogue evoke the DIY-style hits of yesteryear, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
But those movies had pretty clearly defined plots, in which characters were besieged by demonic forces. In Skinamarink, viewers have to solve the film’s puzzle on their own. Moving around the house, Kaylee and Kevin occasionally hear a disembodied voice give orders such as “Come here” and “Look under the bed.” As with any standard horror film, you definitely don’t want them to follow those instructions—but you also very much do, if it means uncovering more clues.
That’s why Skinamarink, for all its dreaminess, is a successful horror film: Like many of the genre’s greatest examples, it has a sense of discovery and terrifying wonder. It’s obviously best experienced in cinemas, but a late-night viewing at home is also quite effective; either way, soaking oneself in the evil ambience is a necessity. Skinamarink evokes the feeling of being caught in a dream you can’t wake up from; as a viewer, I delighted in being unable to escape its strange grasp.