“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols famously asked his audience, practically baiting them to recognize that they could barely play their instruments. I’m wondering if Kyle Edward Ball considered this question of us as he released his debut horror feature, Skinamarink, which has proven financially successful, especially considering its $15,000 budget.
Now don’t get me wrong. I admire the hell out of anyone who can make a splash as an indie filmmaker. Ball, who identifies as queer, has tapped into the zeitgeist with this film and will clearly find himself swimming in offers as a result. But make no mistake, he has made an experimental art film which would seem more at home as a museum installation instead of pairing well with Nicole Kidman’s AMC ads at your friendly neighborhood multiplex.
The basic premise, two children in 1995 wake up in the middle of the night to find their father, the doors and the windows all missing, seems ripe for the genre. One can easily envision a hellish nightmare resulting in sheer terror. While Ball certainly achieves that, he has chosen a different path for execution.
That simple storyline doesn’t really seem to kick in until the halfway mark. The film largely consists of dark, grainy, mostly static shots, courtesy of cinematographer Jamie McRae, often from the kids’ point of view. We end up looking at walls, floors, doorways, dark bedrooms, and lots and lots of Legos strewn about everywhere. A television plays old animated clips, often on repeat, and the soundtrack has endless children’s music, the clanging of pipes, and what sounds like a serial killer’s slowed-down altered voice when calling the police to taunt them. Occasionally the children speak in whispered tones, sometimes subtitled, sometimes not. You have to strain to make out what’s said and seen. We never really get to see the childrens’ faces or much of anything with any real clarity. As we explore the house, we get a jump scare or two and things happen, but pretty much off camera.
It’s intentionally mind-numbingly boring and yet still unnerving. You have to piece things together and do all the work. This film goes out of its way to explain nothing to you, and therein lies its magic. Yes, because despite hating the experience of watching this, I admire Ball’s commitment to its unsparingly bleak aesthetic. Experimental works have their place in cinema. La Jetée and Last Year At Marienbad, for example, challenged traditional storytelling norms, providing a refreshing respite from populist filmmaking.
Ball has made a visceral film, putting us inside the minds of children and tapping into feelings of isolation, confusion, and a type of fear. I’m glad I saw Skinamarink in a theater, as I would have likely found myself scrolling through my phone, cooking dinner, or literally anything else after about 10 minutes of LITERALLY NOTHING HAPPENING! Had this been installed at the Museum Of Contemporary Art, I would have compared it to a Rothko, deciphering images under all those layers. But Skinamarink took my $16, perhaps nudged me into buying an $8 popcorn, thumbed its nose at me, and dared me to stay awake. For Ball’s next film, I hope he gets the chance to direct actors and have them actually appear and speak on camera. Right now, I know he can create atmosphere, that he can set a mood, but can he work with humans? Time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll keep the following argument going inside my head: Yes,…but is it art? Sure! But is it a movie?
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Skinamarink is currently in limited release in theaters and begins streaming on Shudder February 2nd.