If I were an aspiring horror film producer like Jason Bloom, one of the first things I’d do this year would be to offer “Skinmarink” writer-director Kyle Edward Ball a deal. But it would be a special kind of deal — comparable to how Mel Brooks struck with David Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man,” after Brooks saw and liked “Eraserhead.”
“Skinamarink” is not like other horror films. Made for $15,000, it’s a quiet and almost plotless experimental creep-out — a movie with few people (though a few child actors roam the fringes), mostly static images shot inside a nondescript house (in) fact, it Filmmaker’s childhood home) looks like 3:00 am The film will open on January 13 at select megaplexes and it’s the right place for it; You want to experience it with an audience, kind of like a séance. I found “Scinamarink” awful, but it’s a film that begs for patience (and rewards) and therefore invites rebellion (not to mention the unusual grade from Cinemascore). Yet if you go along with it, you might feel that you’ve touched the odd one out.
The lights are dim, the rooms and corridors are mostly deserted, and a common image is a ground-eye view of a carpeted hall, or an upward-angled shot of a door leading into darkness, or the flat cluttered tableau of a playroom. Lego pieces are scattered — and then, with disturbing randomness, another piece will be tossed from the side, and we can’t see who (or what) is tossing.
As “Skinamarink” moves through these mundane domestic spaces, each shot presented as one more piece of a puzzle, the film invites us to relive every childhood fear you’ve ever had of a midnight monster lurking in the shadows. Most of what we see is not supernatural, but there are images that chase us in that direction (like a framed door that suddenly disappears). The trick to film is to scan our shots Symptoms, which becomes an even more hypnotic endeavor as we realize that, yes, there is a monster here, even if it’s not like the monsters in other movies. Horror films are often set in darkness. “Skinnamarink” is one of the rare ones that evokes true apostate terror the night.
The movie has even less of a story than “Eraserhead,” though its creepy, slowly unfolding nightmare-of-the-mind atmosphere owes much to that 1977 classic. The snail’s pace, the corridors that have a dim half-light flickering with the very pulse of electricity, the soundtrack drenched in invisible white noise, the distant old music in the background (in this case, it’s mostly coming from old cartoons) playing on a television set — all of it. Infused with Lynchian mystery.
The effects don’t stop there. That TV set, with its insidious flashes and a cartoon that keeps scurrying in place, is made to resemble a portal, which certainly makes one think of a “poltergeist,” though in this case no visible spirit emerges. It’s “Skinmarkink” like “Poltergeist” by Carl Thayer. Dreyer of “Vampire.” Still, the demonic poetics are couched in a documentary-like stalker atmosphere that evokes the unsettling opening of Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” where a serial killer’s flashlight illuminates the shag-carpeted stairs of the house he’s invading.
The muted silence that is actually a sound…wood paneling, old painted door frames, night lights that seem to vibrate…the camera that flips, so that the film looks like “Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet” lit by cathode-ray tubes…Fisher -Price phone that seems almost alive…whispering and gasping…dropping freely from the wall…wait…could that be blood?
Kyle Edward Ball, who is Canadian, is clearly a connoisseur of primitive semi-underground horror, yet works with his own visionary weirdness. “Skinmarkink” was shot on analog film using vintage cameras, and the cinematographer, Jamie McRae, does a phenomenal job soaking up the distressed grain of the early ’70s. The vibe is very Pre-Technical. A title tells us that the film is set in 1995, but that makes sense, since that’s the last moment that was pre-internet. You could say that the web displaced monsters in our imaginations, because it was a kind of monster itself—a metaphysical connecting force. “Skinamarink” has a soul at work, but it never separates from the atmosphere of anxiety that rules our heads.
There are characters, sort of: a 4-year-old boy, Kevin (Lucas Paul), and his 6-year-old sister, Kaylee (Dally Rose Tetrault), whose parents have disappeared, leaving them alone at home. We see their legs, or the back of their heads, or hear their voices with subtitles. And we hear a low murmuring, which we assume is father, and then realize he is a demon. He speaks like a serial killer, with an ominous cool authority. “Kelly didn’t do what she was told,” she says, “so I took her face off.” We think: Is he really? What happens in “Skinamarink” sneaks up on you so quietly that you’re not just scared; You believe. But you also want to believe your eyes, and in the magnificent final shot the film gives us the vision we’ve been waiting for, the revelation of an evil that has emerged from the next world and our world as well. It is the cinema that connects the portal, the audience with others.