This modern horror nightmare is the type of experience that must be seen in theaters as a demonstration of the full potential of the cinematic form.
When you’re a child, the looming unknowns of late nights can become sites of all-consuming dread. Defined by the near complete quiet of a seemingly empty home shrouded in darkness, we fear all that we cannot see or may not want to. Sound is everything from the rustling of the cheap carpet, to the clicking on of a light and the creaking of a door, or the blaring of the television. All are simple details of such a scenario that, when cycled through, can become part of a creeping fear that threatens to suffocate us in domestic confines that are now no longer safe. This is what is excavated with understated precision that proves to be no less petrifying in the stunning Skinamarink. In the isolation of a single house that becomes vast in how it peers into a dark abyss, writer-director Kyle Edward Ball conducts an orchestra of abject horror where every detail packs a profound sense of otherworldly peril. Evocative and experimental in melding incredible sound design with haunting visuals, it is one of the decade’s most exciting cinematic visions that is certain to be one of the best films of the year.
First premiering back at the Fantasia Film Festival and now getting a theatrical release through IFC Midnight, it immerses us in the world of two young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who awaken to find that all is not right in their home. There are no adults in sight and attempts to find them only lead to the discovery that they are trapped inside with no way out, as the doors through which they could flee have vanished. Neither child initially seems too alarmed, their innocence and lack of understanding serving almost as a fragile shield from the true terror that is swirling around them. They seek solace in watching old cartoons on the television, but eventually these become creepy when they begin to loop back on themselves. As they whisper to each other, asking questions about what is happening that neither knows the answers to, we get drawn deeper and deeper into an unrelenting descent into nightmares. The rhythm with which it all plays out is dreamlike, relying on a visual language and pacing that defies any conventional framing for this type of haunted house story. Yet, at the same time, it is grounded in a growing awareness that these two children are in mortal danger that is slowly but surely beginning to swallow them whole.
There is a temptation to attempt to find reference points for this experience. A particular one that comes to mind is that it feels akin to the mysterious and macabre hallway described within the labyrinthian novel House of Leaves. However, such efforts can only capture a small sliver of the terrifying tone that Ball brings to life in Skinamarink. Any sort of attempt to define it by what it is like is a fool’s errand as it is truly unlike anything out there. While you may experience small glimmers of shared memories from the experience of being a child, be it playing with toys or turning a couch into a makeshift fort, that is only the tip of the iceberg. It introduces these familiar elements then warps them into something more unsettling, disrupting what the children and us as the audience would look to as stabilizing forces when everything has been turned on its head. That only makes it all the more devastating as everything is ruthlessly taken from the children who remain cosmically alone. One after another, piece by piece, all they sought to cling to is rendered illusive as the voices that echo and emerge from the very bones of the house grow stronger as they pull us in further still.
Though we hardly see the characters themselves, or figures of any kind for that matter, our mind creates something far more horrifying. A simple instruction about looking under the bed leaves us beginning to brace in anticipation, even as we can’t bring ourselves to look away from what may be lurking in the darkness. The light from the television that dances across the walls is often the only source of illumination in extended sequences. Though this initially hides much of what is out there, it doesn’t obfuscate or hinder the experience. Rather, the darkness has a depth to it that feels almost unfathomable in a manner that is appropriately mesmerizing. Cinematographer Jamie McRae ensures no visual is wasted as it is all about the meticulous accumulation of each creating an atmosphere that leaves you wanting to crawl out of your skin. Each shot where you aren’t able to quite make out what is happening is both a respite and a source of tension as the next could be one where you glimpse something where there was once nothing. It is this atmosphere where the film thrives, making the appearance of even just the top of a head in a place where it wasn’t there before into a gut punch. The more Ball makes us familiar with the otherwise mundane layout of the rooms and the house, the more he instills a fear of what will happen when this is further disrupted.
What these disruptions all amount to could potentially be disappointing for those who are looking for some sort of explicit closure. With that being said, the way the film denies such catharsis is absolutely integral to what makes it all so impactful. If you were a young child and you suddenly found your home had almost been plucked from time with no way out, this would defy any possible explanation. Attempting to give it one would both cheapen the experience and undercut the terror that comes from not knowing what it is going on. The lack of clear answers in the conclusion does not strip it of meaning. It actually does the opposite, forcing us off balance as an audience and into a deeper reckoning with all that is unfolding before us. On multiple watches, each ended with me taking away something different about the way such terror can make all our lives so small as a result. One particular visual paired with screaming sounds that repeat towards the end will stick with me forever in how utterly and completely helpless it made me feel. It is all part of how all one can do is give themselves over to such a striking vision, ideally in the darkest possible theater and the biggest screen you can find. Whatever you take away from it, the uniting fear Skinamarink creates ensures it will be remembered as an unparalleled achievement in horror cinema in how it paints a portrait of oblivion that beckons us into dark recesses from which there is no escape.
Skinamarink is in theaters starting January 13 and is coming to Shudder later in 2023.