Skinamarink (2023)

For anyone disappointed that Jane Schoenbrun’s microbudget darling We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was a somber teen-crisis drama instead of the low-fi creepypasta horror it was mismarketed as, Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink might be the salve for your year-old wounds.  Curiously, the next project on Schoenbrun’s docket is titled I Saw the TV Glow, which is the closest thing to a coherent plot synopsis you could apply to Ball’s narrative-light experiment in digital-grained dread.  Skinamarink is crowdsourced Internet Age horror, both in funding and in conception.  After honing his craft by adapting user-submitted dream journals into horror shorts on his YouTube channel Bitesized Nightmares, Ball crowdfunded a feature-length amalgamation of those comment-section submissions’ most common themes & images for his official, theatrical debut.  Skinamarink was essentially conceived by the internet hivemind.  It was marketed by it too, illegally leaked out of online film festival platforms and spread around as a slumber party-style dare among TikTok Zoomers, as if it were vintage found footage instead of an upcoming theatrical release.  Whereas We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about creepypasta, Skinamarink is a genuine example of it, which makes the two films an unlikely, unholy pair (and possibly just the start of a larger, not-yet-defined Internet Age film movement).

It’s easy to forget Skinamarink‘s Internet Age DNA in the moment, though, since it’s aesthetically nostalgic for an earlier era.  While the look & feel of Skinamarink conjures memories of impossibly late nights spent online in my teen years, its 1995 setting dials the clock back even further to a time before when it was affordable to bring the internet home.  Ball shot the film in his own childhood home, perfectly preserved with popcorn ceilings and unstylish lighting fixtures that recall a bland childhood everyhome.  In its one overtly nightmarish conceit, two young siblings—Kevin and Kaylee—wake to discover that not only are their parents missing, but the doors & windows to the outside world are missing too, with the remaining smoothed-out walls forming an endless, featureless labyrinth.  Ball creates a first-person-POV childhood nightmare experience by removing all possible distinguishing features from both the setting and his characters, ensuring there are no framed art pieces, family portraits, or even characters’ faces to differentiate this eerie childhood memory from your own (presuming you’re old enough to remember a pre-internet world).  The exact vintage toys, cartoons, and drab carpeting of a 90s childhood immerse the audience in an uneasy familiarity with this forgotten psychic space.  Even the title—a reference to an ancient novelty song best remembered as the repurposed theme for The Elephant Show in the 1980s—feels eerily familiar, but initially difficult to place.

That dual familiarity to 1990s suburban homes and 2000s internet subdungeons is an important sensory anchor in a film with very little narrative structure to speak of.  Kevin and Kaylee are young children with malleable minds, so they take the sudden disappearance of their parents & escape paths as a simple matter of fact, choosing to ride out the nightmare by playing with their off-brand Legos in front of public-domain Fleischman cartoons looping on the basement TV.  On their occasional excursions up the stairs and down the hallways it becomes increasingly apparent that something is in the house with them, an evil presence that’s destined to be colloquially known as The Skinamarink as this film’s legacy stretches into the future.  To explain how The Skinamarink torments these faceless children in this featureless suburban prison would spoil the three or four identifiable events in the otherwise sparse 100 minutes of film grain & room tone.  It’s a work mostly made of textures, not narrative.  The heavily distorted tape hiss & digital grain invite you to lean in, searching for something tangibly evil in the undulating darkness.  You do eventually find it, usually in loud flashes that interrupt long stretches of wooshy quiet with the arthouse equivalent of a jump scare.  What’s much more important is the dread you feel looking for something that isn’t there, though, which leaves a much starker, more memorable impression than the spooky shapes The Skinamarink eventually takes.

Skinamarink is simultaneously a familiar experience and an alien one, mixing generic horror tropes with an experimental sensibility – like a Poltergeist remake guided by the spirit of Un Chien Andalou.  It’s the kind of loosely plotted, bad-vibes-only, liminal-space horror that requires the audience to meet it halfway both in emotional impact and in logical interpretation.  In the best-case scenario, audiences will find traces of their own childhood nightmares in its darkened hallways & Lego-piece art instillations.  Personally, I was more hung up on the way it evokes two entirely separate eras of my youth: my alone-time online as a sleep-starved teen and my alone-time in front of cathode TVs as a sleep-starved tyke a decade earlier.  There’s some dark magic in the way it buries its analog horror tropes under a heavy digital shroud, and the looping, undulating patterns of the digital film grain were often just as mesmerizing as the search for the monster they obscure.  Even if the film doesn’t ignite your brain on that digital-psychedelia level or stir a more sinister, subliminal reaction in your chest, its immediate financial & cultural success is still a victory worth celebrating.  It isn’t often that a film this strange breaks out of the straight-to-Shudder release model, much less one shot in a single week for $15,000.  Skinamarink is a good omen for the continued theatrical distribution of Weird Art in our sanitized corporate hell-future, even if it plays like a cursed internet broadcast from a post-theatrical world.

-Brandon Ledet

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