The first time I had ever seen The Blair Witch Project was in 1999, shortly before the wide release of the film in theaters. A friend of my older brother had a screener copy of the film he obtained from a relative. I was old enough to be fairly certain the film was fiction, but young and dumb enough to have that lingering voice in my head wondering if what I was watching truly was the last known whereabouts of a group of campers. I was safe at home, secure in my basement, but the form of the film was etching itself into my brain, the way it looked more like my dad’s home movies than anything I had ever rented from Blockbuster and called a movie. That night, I walked in the dark from my bedroom to the bathroom and back again. The surroundings were the same as always, but the dark enveloped me and the world. How could I be so sure what lay beyond that? That was a feeling I had not felt for a long time until I saw Skinamarink.
Now streaming on Shudder and still playing in theaters, Skinamarink is directed by Kyle Edward Ball and evokes the memory of The Blair Witch Project as an ultra-low budget horror film spread by word of mouth online and garnering polarizing reviews. Where Blair Witch relied on the internet to spread the word of its release, Skinamarink is a byproduct itself of the internet. The last few years have seen the rise of “lo-fi horror”, a sub-genre that applies to works such as the 2022 short film The Backrooms and 2019’s We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, though it has also been retroactively applied to indie and found footage style horror films such as The Blair Witch Project and Kōji Shiraishi’s Noroi: The Curse. Ball cut his teeth on YouTube with his channel "Bitesized Nightmares" featuring short films based on user submitted descriptions of their actual nightmares, as well as lengthy ambient song and sound videos such as “Nostalgic Old Kids Records but you're a Dead Child's ghost, to fall asleep, relax or study to”. Nostalgic tinged terror and tone pieces, generally revolving around suburban childhood. I first heard about Skinamarink several months ago. A few trusted individuals I know caught it on the festival circuit, said it was a must see, so I consciously avoided any additional information on just what it was until I reached the IFC Center in January for a screening.
The story of Skinamarink is as simple as any nightmare. Two children wake in the middle of the night to find that their father is missing and that all the windows and exits to their home are vanishing, along with other inexplicable phenomena. The film lays into a slow burn with strange occurrences punctuating the lengthy silence. The camera hovers over the children and sometimes takes on their perspective as they try to make the best of being unable to leave their familiar yet abstract prison. The camera lingers on dimly lit halls, flickering TVs, and toys in disarray as reality within the home becomes dismantled bit by bit over an hour and forty minutes that you very much feel the length of. Adding to the discomfort is the way the camera is never conventionally centered, with perspectives from a low angle like those of the children, or from a more skewed perspective of… something else. Children in peril is often hard to watch and feels especially cruel, but because we are seeing many of the events through their eyes, the film very much makes the viewer feel as trapped as the characters, making a safe and familiar setting feel disquieting, like a childhood nightmare. Skinamarink’s tone and use of first person perspective reminded me way more of the video game P.T. than other haunted house films. Both works involve a claustrophobic yet familiar suburban setting where supernatural forces add an unpredictable element, hinting at a turmoil within the family’s structure with the tension heightened by the first person perspective.
The entirety of Skinamarink is presented with a heavy veil of digitized film grain, though unlike Blair Witch, there are no documentary filmmakers present to explain its use. The heavy grain acts as a sort of fog of memories. Though at a certain point I wondered if the grain was an aesthetic choice or a crutch. You spend so much of the film staring at this grain that you can see when the filter animation actually loops if you pay attention, which did take me out of things a few times. There is a fascination with memories and the nebulous concept of nostalgia throughout the film as the children’s only “window” into another world is a VHS tape of public domain cartoons, played on a TV set festooned by Legos. This particular flavor of nostalgia though will probably only resonate on an experiential level with Gen X and Millennial viewers, though Zoomers have certainly been fascinated with the (often exaggerated) trappings of analog media in recent times. Over the years a sort of perpetual nostalgia has been permeating over pop-culture, whether it’s media franchises that never go away like Ghostbusters: Afterlife or shows such as Stranger Things regurgitating an idealized version of the 80s adorned by pop cultural landmarks. Skinamarink very much trades in a form of that nostalgia, yet does so in a film that concentrates on making the viewer as uncomfortable as possible.
Due to the reliance on lengthy silences and slow burns for the sake of immersion, Skinamarink is the sort of film that really needs to be watched in a dark movie theater, or in your home in the dead of night with your phone in another room to really get the full effect of feeling the powerlessness and fear of the main characters, and even then it might not gel with everybody that sees it. One time in the 8th grade I saw a hypnotist do a show and he said that he could really only perform his feat if a participant wants to be hypnotized, which is kinda how I feel about audience reactions to Skinamarink. You have to more or less devote yourself to the film to get its full effect, but if you’re willing then the film has much to offer you. The constant ambiguity and uncertainty throughout the film is heightened by the viewer’s own imagination, leading to interpretations ranging from the film being a metaphor for child abuse to an expression of Catholic guilt and shame towards a divorced household. The film relies a lot on the viewer reaching their own conclusions, which for some viewers can be abjectly terrifying and for others deeply unsatisfying. Yet the nostalgia is clearly the omnipresent motif and nostalgia is typically about evoking warm fuzzy memories. Skinamarink is about evoking the memories of waking up in the dead of night by yourself as up became down.
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