Indie horror flick ‘Skinamarink’ is a surreal hit, experienced through the eyes of children

Who’s afraid of the dark?

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click to enlarge The stars of horror flick Skinamarink are a young brother and sister. - BayView Entertainment
BayView Entertainment
The stars of horror flick Skinamarink are a young brother and sister.

Inspired by childhood fright, experimental horror film Skinamarink reminds us why we fear the dark. Shot on a relative shoestring $15,000 budget, the film was an unlikely favorite at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, and despite being leaked online, it has grossed more than $1.5 million during its limited theatrical release. Critics and viewers have been fascinated with the film, and people on social media have been analyzing the film day and night. It hits the horror-focused streaming service Shudder on Thursday.

The film takes place in 1995 in a house that is familiar and nostalgic, with wood paneling and fixtures standard in many Midwest homes, lulling viewers into false security. Then, every parent’s worst nightmare: four-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) falls down the stairs. We hear the scream and cry of an injured toddler, followed by his father’s voice overheard on the phone talking to an unknown person, assuring that the boy is OK. According to his sister, Kaylee (Dali Rose), Kevin had fallen due to a sleepwalking incident, and that’s the last we hear and see until the pair wake up to find their father (Ross Paul) has vanished. Mom (Jamie Hill) is nowhere to be seen, and soon the children find their home no longer has any doors or windows. From there, the film follows the children trying to make sense of the nightmare.

Skinamarink is the feature directorial debut of Kyle Edward Ball, who made a name for himself running a YouTube channel called Bitesized Nightmares where he would create and direct short films based on the fears of commenters. The film’s executive producer is Jonathan Barkan, an Ann Arbor native who helped with distribution.

While Barkan wasn’t involved in the writing process, he tells Metro Times that he was familiar with Ball’s work.

“Kyle is a really fascinating and exciting filmmaker, and what he did to kind of hone his craft and to get a lot of experience is he asked people, ‘What scared you when you were a child? What was your childhood fear?’” Barkan says. “He would make these short films just to kind of practice and get an understanding of how to frame shots, how to light things, [find out] what are the things that he could get away with. … As he started getting more and more feedback from people, and more people sharing their childhood nightmares, he began to notice a pattern, and began to notice that there were kind of these thematic similarities in what scared people when they were young.”

Unlike traditional horror films, Skinamarink leaves watchers literally in the dark, eschewing adult logic and a plot for more of an surreal approach as the children explore the spooky house. Once the kids find their way to the living room, they find toys stuck to the ceiling; in the bathroom, the toilet’s disappeared, and cartoons are always playing on the VCR.

There’s a primal fear, an uneasiness that follows throughout the film. An adult can reason that our eyes play tricks in the dark, but interacting with a house when you’re only three feet tall is the ultimate childhood terror, and when your parents can’t be found to protect you, the darkness can consume a child’s mind. Skinamarink is so minimal that the viewer’s eyes dart back and forth to find something lurking in the shadows, while the sound feels like auditory hallucinations of whispers and cartoon songs, disorienting and confusing.

Watching the film might feel like a chore to some — it’s nearly two hours long — but it’s easy to lose yourself in it if you’re willing to allow it to have power over you. From a first-person point of view, rounding every corner becomes a mental gamble of what might be seen on the other side. While it’s scarce on jumpscares, the few involved hit, especially with much of the film being almost uneventful in many ways. By the midway mark, your skin feels as if it’s crawling in anticipation of something, anything, to happen — while also being conscious that whatever happens to these children will manifest the fear you’ve created in your mind.

“As we grow older, our fears become more complicated, they become more nuanced,” Barkan says. “You know, it’s, ‘I’m no longer as scared of something chasing me up the stairs,’ it’s falling down the stairs and getting a medical bill. But when we open ourselves up and kind of face our inner child and give ourselves into that aspect of ourselves, that’s when Kyle’s films really hit a nerve and have the power to just terrify in a way that many of us haven’t felt since we were, you know, really, really young.”

Skinnamarink isn’t just a film to watch — it’s a film to experience in the dark, to enter the deepest recesses of your mind and explore what you thought you had forgotten. It asks audiences to dig into their childhood and find the defining moments of literal or perceived abandonment, becoming an examination of youth through a lack of autonomy.

“We have to be open to engaging within its rules,” Barkan says. “I think it really does come back to are we, the audience, secure enough of our growth and our maturity, to allow ourselves to slip back [to being a] child and recognize what that says about ourselves.”

During the film’s limited theatrical run, it got a screening at Ann Arbor’s State Theatre, where Barkan had previously organized Three Corpse Circus, a festival for short horror films. He says he was proud to see the theater’s marquee proclaim: “THE VIRAL PHENOMENON NOW PLAYING.”

“I just like, ‘What is going on?’” he says. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

Barkan laments the disappearance of small, independent theaters where audiences can enjoy experimental films like Skinamarink as multiplexes remain fixated on predictable, big-budget entertainment, but he’s hopeful it can show the viability of indie cinema.

“I think it’s up to the independent theaters to create experiences that the mainstream cinemas would never touch with a 20-foot pole,” he says. “I don’t think Skinamarink will ignite an interest in independent cinema — I think cinemas as a whole, whether they are mainstream or independent art house theaters, are going to look at something like Skinamarink with an open mind and see that financially there is something that can be gained here.”

Barksan says it’s best for audiences to sit back and let themselves get lost in the film.

“If you allow yourself to become hypnotized by what it’s doing, you will come out of it with a strong reaction,” he says. “Let the art impact you.”

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About The Author

Konstantina Buhalis

Romanian import and Greek school dropout Konstantina Buhalis was born in Bucharest, Romania, and came to Detroit in December 1995, where her first few years of life were enjoyed on the east side and Greektown. Buhalis spent her early years reading the Detroit Free Press, Teen Vogue, and Rolling Stone and began...
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