Skinamarink (2022)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2023-01-19 01:05

Written and Directed by: Kyle Edward Ball
Starring: Lucas Paul and Dali Rose Tetreault

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I want to play.”

I’ve never been a consistently lucid dreamer. More often than not, my dreams simply leave an impression on me, a barely perceptible feeling that lingers throughout the day and, sometimes, beyond. Some fleeting images have remained with me for years, to the point where they may as well be memories. And who’s to say they aren’t, really? At a certain point, distant memories and hazy dreams occupy the same space: warm, wistful nostalgia operates on an impressionistic level just like a bad dream that you can never shake. I can’t tell you exactly why it was a bad dream—only that it feels like a bad dream.Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink dwells in this nebulous space, this intersection between dreams and memory, where the subconscious terror of childhood unfolds in an analog haze. His camera captures a nightmare that can’t be parsed, but there’s no doubt it is a nightmare, and it’s a singular one at that: there’s pretty much nothing else like Skinamarink, much less anything that’s ever willed itself into multiplexes. Idiosyncratic and primal all at once, it feels like the recollection of both a specific nightmare and the shared, collective unconscious of the fear that grips us during childhood, when even the most comforting and banal spaces house terrifying shadows.

Conventionally speaking, the plot is best described as an abstract depiction of a haunted childhood in 1995. Largely left to their own devices, Kevin and Kaylee (Lucas Paul & Dali Rose Tetreault) roam through their house, where all of the windows and doors have mysteriously vanished, leaving the siblings trapped within both with and without their parents all at once. While their mom and dad have a presence in the house, it’s not clear if they’re real, ghosts, or something else. The only thing that is clear: something awful has laid siege to this house, its raspy voice intoning the children to come upstairs and play, luring them to a fate that’s indeterminate yet utterly horrible. In a movie where very little is certain, one thing is for sure: whatever is haunting these children has put them in grave peril, and the pit this movie digs into your stomach suggests that they aren’t going to be alright.

If you’re the type of person who needs references to other movies as guideposts, then I’m afraid I don’t have much for you here. There simply isn’t much to compare Skinamarink to, and the best I can do is compare it to watching the tape from The Ring for 100 minutes—and even that really doesn’t capture it because the visuals in Skinamarink aren’t as surreal. In fact, it’s the banality of the setting (Ball’s childhood home) that gives the film its unsettling—and unconventional—sense of menace. The camera spends much of its time fixed on random fragments of the house’s interior: hallways, doors, ceilings, the floorspace, creating an eerie sense of vacancy. For the first ten minutes, it feels like an unconventional way to establish a sense of space and tone; however, as Skinamarink drones on, it becomes clear that Ball isn’t interested in crafting a lucid narrative. Instead, these shots are the movie, and whatever plot there is to speak of emerges as an impressionistic haze. Even the characters themselves feel like ghosts in their own story because we rarely see them on-screen, and their dialogue is pitched at such a hushed whisper that subtitles are often required. It’s actually jarring whenever a human presence is fully in the frame because they feel like intruders upon the liminal spaces whose menace becomes strangely entrancing.

There’s an almost hypnotic rhythm to Skinamarink, which unfolds beneath a layer of digital grain that strives to recapture the look and feel of 8mm home movies. While many filmmakers often deploy this for gimmicky, nostalgic purposes, it feels more purposeful here, especially since Ball incorporates the perpetual purr of a projector into the soundscape, making the experience even more unreal. The unrelenting hum works in concert with another analog specter: a CRT television set that plays an endless loop of vintage cartoons, whose innocent exploits become an incongruent source of melancholy terror. Max Fleischer's “Somewhere in Dreamland” — a technicolor fable about two Depression Era siblings who dream of a magical land where all of their confectionary wishes are granted—emerges as a poignant yet unnerving touchstone here.

For Kevin and Kaylee, there is no escape from their own infernal dreamland, a notion that pulls the latent darkness of the Fleischer cartoon to the forefront and allows it to fester throughout Skinamarink. As the playful cartoons roll on, their ironic placement becomes increasingly despairing especially when Kevin and Kaylee’s house begins to act like a twisted funhouse mirror of these animated exploits. One particularly unsettling loop finds a character continually disappearing and reappearing, suggesting some kind of eternal, hellish punishment that grows more unnerving with each repetition. You simply want it to stop so you can escape—but Ball’s manipulation of time and space hints that the events unfolding in these walls are doomed to recur forever.

Skinamarink works on that kind of instinctual level, its images unspooling in a manner that recaptures the uneasiness of a child tip-toeing through their dark house at night. So many shots focus on an innocuous, random part of the home, suggesting the point of view of two children with wandering, wide eyes, and the way Ball harnesses this primal, terrifying experience is remarkable. You find yourself holding your breath, much like when you were a child trying to creep about the house, and that’s the ultimate triumph here. Longtime horror fans are constantly chasing the dragon of their youth, hoping to recapture those bygone days when movies really could scare us, and Skinamarink turns that notion on its head by reminding you that nothing is more terrifying than simply being a child left to wander about empty, lonely spaces—even when there isn’t some kind of malevolent entity taking up residency in your house.

Whatever is terrorizing the children here never comes into focus (the final shot is literally captures a hazy impression vaguely forming out of darkness), and Skinamarink is so purposefully abstract and obtuse that it practically begs you to probe for a deeper meaning. There’s just enough hints and suggestive dialogue to interpret it as an allegory for abuse: a phone call involving the father reveals that Kevin fell down the steps and hurt his head, the mother ominously reassures the kids that she loves them very much, and Kevin makes a harrowing phone call to 911 after he engages in self-harm. At one point, Kaylee literally loses her mouth as a punishment because domestic abuse so often unfolds in this kind of forced silence. This reading of the film no doubt makes Skinamarink even more unnerving and despairing, but it’s not at all definitive; in fact, I almost think it’s best to resist digging too deeply into Skinamarink, at least at first. I get it: it’s already spawned scores of Reddit threads full of people trying to parse its meaning, and it’s only natural to sift some order out of this chaos. However, its dream logic also feels like an invitation to simply allow the film to cast its eerie spell over you. Just as you’ll never completely decode a nightmare, Skinamarink will never be a lucid experience, nor should it be. Its strength lies in its evocation of primal childhood fears: peering into the inky darkness beneath your bed, toiling away with your toys in the lonely glow of your TV, hiding from the boogeyman.

While these fears are familiar, Skinamarink is anything but conventional in its exploration of them, and its experimental form is sure to be divisive. It makes the recent trend of slow-burn, methodically-paced laconic horrors look downright prosaic by comparison, and its 100-minute runtime is likely to test your patience, especially if you’re expecting Bell to punctuate it with obvious horror movie fare (he scatters about three jump scares throughout, none of them remotely hackneyed). I’d argue that its length leans into one of its other strengths, though: the persistent droning quality that submerges you in its nightmare logic without letting you gasp for air. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the first third of Skinamarink thrashing about, desperately trying to cling to something tangible that might illuminate it before ultimately surrendering to its impressionistic rhythms. Once it does loosen its grip, you still won’t be able to completely shake it, no more than you can completely shake the phantasmic melancholy of a bad dream. You might never be completely sure why or how Skinamarink etched that pit into your stomach, but you’ll always know it’s there, embedded like shrapnel hurled from somewhere in dreamland.

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