It is almost improper not to look at Skinamarink on a personal level. After all, the bulk of Kyle Edward Ball‘s divisive debut is as intimate as it is specific. Everyone will have a different response to what’s been toted as the “TikTok generation’s Blair Witch Project;” some find the indie film to be too nonsensical, whereas others succumb to its analogue artifice and unique sense of domestic dread.
The basic premise: two young children — Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) — come to find their parents are gone upon waking up, and as they move about their own home, parts of the house start to shift or disappear altogether. Soon enough, the siblings are trapped in a liminal space between consciousness and sleep. Over the course of the film, Kevin and Kaylee are joined by an orchestra of alive and breathing sounds, as well as twitchy shadows. The kids aren’t so alone as they originally thought.
While Skinamarink‘s lo-fi presentation isn’t unique, Ball maintains the film’s abstract aesthetic longer than most. This consuming nightmare is feature-length, making it inescapable. In addition, there’s a purgatorial quality to the children’s nocturnal activities. They wander without direction, from room to room, finding neither adults nor answers. It’s a familiar narrative for anyone who grew up feeling unsafe at home. The childhood comforts of cartoons, crayons and toys no longer work like a magic bandage when the family environment transcends mere dysfunction and goes helter-skelter. The film captures the turning point with uncanny results.
As much as Skinamarink comes across as an extended excerpt, one plucked from a longer story, there is a sense of completion to everything here. The plot breadcrumbs are too randomly laid to ever be thought of as traditional or linear, but Ball does convey some semblance of a whole picture with this expressive study in sights and sounds. The sunless and hazy dreamscape that is Kevin and Kaylee’s home is an obstacle when locating rationale; your eyes have to adjust to the near total darkness and your brains have to consider what’s not being shown or said.
Sparse but telling dialogue, vanishing barriers and amenities, skewed angles and Fleischer cartoons — they all fill in the blanks of this disconnected story. This is more than a case of accidental abandonment. Ball’s own childhood toys make an appearance in this homemade horror show, and the fact that they’re not being played with says a lot about the characters’ frame of mind. The deterioration and breakage of Legos fashioned into homes and structures also quietly reinforce the familial anxiety. Skinamarink has a particular visual language that doesn’t require formal teaching; the meaning of certain images can be interpreted in different ways, though the emotion they emit is universally understood.
No two people are always going to be scared of the same exact things. Skinamarink wisely understands this and instead focuses on manifesting sheer creepiness. There may not be enough here to rattle the most hardened of horror enthusiasts, but there’s no denying the organized uneasiness of the film. Its eerie exhibition gets under the skin. This doesn’t mean the story lacks in more direct frights; with the parents nowhere to be found, two other adultlike entities — one male and one female — appear in the home. Again, deciphering their origin or motives is up to the viewer, yet there’s no denying the transparent discomfort that comes with these vague and opportunistic intruders.
Skinamarink entices by feeling forbidden. It plays out like a lost film that shouldn’t be watched. The cryptic and psychological imagery is enhanced by a textured soundtrack and sustained stretches of barely lit and static scenes. The film obviously won’t appeal to everyone; its uncommon structure asks that it not be picked apart. The brain can’t help but analyze what is unknown and unusual, however in the end, Skinamarink work best as an experience. One where you soak up the haunted video and audio on display, and let them seep into your own dreams.