The slow burn horror film can sometimes mistake quiet with tension, static shots with dread. The best among them avoid falling victim to this. Movies like Hagazussa (2017), The Dark and The Wicked (2020), and The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), find ways to unsettle with a carefully orchestrated sequence of events that linger and invite a closer inspection of the horrors they contain. They excel at creating a sense of discomfort that the slow pace intensifies, especially as the creepier aspects of the story take root and become ever-present once revealed.
Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, unfortunately, doesn’t quite master the intricacies of slow pacing to create a consistently scary, dread-filled, or even tense movie. Its experimental approach to storytelling, which resorts to found footage camerawork to capture the darkest corners of a house haunted by something that’s taking its time tormenting the family that lives there, produces some haunting imagery and a few truly disturbing sequences, but they are spread too far in between to create a real sense of tension and dread throughout.
A micro-budget horror film, Skinamarink centers itself around two kids inside a two-story house that saw its doors and windows disappear, specifically the ones that lead outside. Their parents seem to be missing, out of sight for the majority of the film (if not for all of it depending on how you interpret certain scenes). We only get half glimpses of the kids’ faces, nothing ever so clear that we can distinguish them elsewhere. In fact, most of the movie sticks to dimly lit corridors, ceiling corners, closeups of Legos, and a big TV showing old black & white cartoons, all in near pitch-black conditions.
Early on, the slow quiet mixed in with the darkness creates an effective and even dangerous sensation that makes you think you’re looking in on someone’s nightmare, a kid’s nightmare at that. What we see through the camera are things and places inside the house that would scare any child that’s afraid of the dark and has no parent nearby to protect them from it (a fear many of us go through growing up, and beyond with some people). Often the only source of light is the glow of the TV screen or a night light, sometimes the hallway light or the one in the kids’ bedroom. The rest of the time everything is covered in a blueish hue that’s meant to communicate the absolute lack of any natural source of light.
In an interview with slashfilm.com, Ball stated that he achieved this lighting effect by mounting a sun gun on top of the camera and then putting a blue filter over it, which was also used to grade with. The effect succeeds in creating a kind of living darkness where the camera’s inability to clearly capture what’s there instead creates a dark canvass that the audience’s imagination can then populate with strange things moving in the background that might not be not entirely human.
What betrays this impressive visual setup is that there are huge chunks of the film where nothing concrete happens. I can fill in the darkness with all manner of monsters and demons, but there were stretches were I felt that was all I was doing. Once I played around with my imagination, I wanted to see something more from the mind of the director. The ratio of personal input vs. storytelling is severely unbalanced.
When the story lands on a horror sequence with images crafted by the director, the scares are effective and the imagery creates its own kind of Hell. Ball knows how to produce faint but malicious shapes that leave a lasting mark in the darkness, leaving a kind of afterimage that you just can’t shake off.
Now, because of the story’s glacial pace, these parts of the story don’t entirely land or disturb with the force they could’ve. The reason is that too much time passes between them to allow for tension to set. Add in Ball’s overuse of the cartoons, which provide a hint as to what the kids are experiencing in certain parts of the story, and the strategy starts to feel repetitive and tedious before long.
The nightmare scenario Ball creates in Skinamarink falls in line with his previous work, available to watch on YouTube, which consists of short films based on nightmares users leave on his channel’s comment section, or on his other social media pages. These videos are absolutely terrifying and way more effective in capturing the deceitful dimensions of a nightmare. What helps them the most, though, is their length. They are very short, minutes long in most cases. They are extremely similar stylistically and they do a better job of balancing audience interpretation with specific instances of horror.
Discovering Ball’s previous work led me to believe that Skinamarink would’ve worked better as a short film. The time constraint could’ve given tension and dread a better chance to shine and to sustain itself. As is, the movie feels more like something you’d find in a museum under experimental video art. You go in, watch a bit, and then move on.
There’s nothing wrong with experimentation or with asking audiences to put in more on their part to enrich the viewing experience. I enjoyed trying to figure out if something was actually moving in the darkness or if it was just that the camera produced too fuzzy an image because of the house’s all-consuming shadows. Problem was that the effect got stale way before the halfway point and it didn’t really offer anything new to keep me interested as the story progressed. Creepy sound design and minimalistic dialogue help turn the house into a claustrophobic nightmare of childhood fears too, but it gets lost in the tedium. Oddly enough, getting lost in the tedium is exactly what some viewers will experience while watching the movie.