Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and figures like Freddy Kreuger have spurred many nightmares – but somehow, nothing can compare to the boundless possibilities of darkness. Think about when you were a child and had to get up and go to the bathroom down a dark hallway. Or the time you went to bed and the only safe haven was whatever character nite light was hooked up to an outlet. You’ve been down that hallway a million times over – however, darkness is always the anomaly. It can create things within our imagination, no matter how familiar we are with it.
Writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink calls on the audience to draw from that adolescent (or even adult) sense of dread where a house can be filled with an indiscriminate amount of horrors. Some can be overt as a ghoulish voice, but also discreet as walking down the basement steps. This film often provides a platter of ingredients to make your own determinations. Much of what’s given often leads to an unsettling place. Within this, there’s a simple premise.
Four-year-old brother and his six-year-old sister Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) wake up in their home one night to find their dad suddenly disappears. It’s not as if they could look out a window or walk out the front door – those are also missing. So, these two children are left to navigate a vast space of rooms in a scat amount of light. The only solace they have are old cartoons on VHS tapes and some legos. To expound beyond this would do a disservice to Skinamarink’s atmosphere. Depending on the person, it can be experienced as a choose-your-own-adventure abundance of fears.
In the way the film’s sound textures and camera framing is structured, these elements never allow your mind to feel comfortable. Cinematographer Jamie McRae utilizes a layer of grain to add a layer of difficulty to sight. Shots are often at different angles, not allowing the viewer to fully understand what’s happening. At times, scenes will lock into a black space running up a feeling of apprehensiveness which is another reoccurring theme throughout the runtime; You never get to see the children in a full frame – the brief views of them are always at their feet or briefly at their backs. For dialogue, there are slight whispers and sometimes words on a screen. You would think the sounds of upbeat classic cartoon music could soften the mood – if anything, that and the blue tint of the television are a combination for more bad things to occur.
Ball is fully aware that sight and perception go hand and hand. Seeing things for what they equate to safety. If we at least get to see the children in this perplexing situation, the audience can deduce they will be ok. Skinamarink never fully shows its cards – opting for obscurity as a superpower. This can be frustrating to those who want an immediate answer, and sometimes, the film gives a tiny morsel. Skinamarink’s almost two-hour runtime calls on patience, prying on your hopes that all will be revealed in typical scenarios.
Something is in this house with the children. Is this just a figment of our imagination, theirs, or an actual construct of the malevolent? Any interpretation is fair game because the darkness is sometimes both an unreliable narrator and a warning sign. While this isn’t a traditional story, the feelings it invokes will transport you back to a time when you felt all of this was possible.
Horror has given us many totems of people and entities to be afraid of over the years. None are a match for what we can come up with in the playgrounds of our curiosity. Skinamarink walks the fine line between fever dream and nightmare – often mixing into each other. Rather than relying on the jolt of jump scares, Ball elects to spread the anxiety around where it has a scent that sticks around.