I don’t think I’ve ever been so conflicted about writing a movie review as I am with Kyle Edward Ball’s debut, Skinamarink. I think I’d only heard the name a couple of weeks ago, and then I heard it was playing an extremely limited engagement here in the Twin Cities metro region of Minnesota. I’d heard it was an indie horror – which is personally my favourite kind of horror movie – and the premise seemed a little intriguing, but it wasn’t until my daughter asked me to go that I decided to do it, rather than wait for it to stream. So, on a chilly, damp January night, we headed to the nearby Art-Deco inspired cinema, and … well, read on …
So here’s the premise: a pair of young siblings, Kevin and Kaylee, are at home with their parents, when things get weird. Doors, windows, even a toilet, disappear then reappear. The parents are barely seen or heard, even though they’re at home … and slowly, but surely, a malevolent presence emerges. It sure sounds like a horror movie premise, right? And I bet you can see how this might play out in the theater. Maybe like a horror version of Zathura (which is kind of what the premise made me think of), but whatever movie you might be inclined to think of, you’d be dead wrong. Skinamarink is nothing like any movie you could think of.
There’s a reason for that too – Skinamarink is not really a movie at all, in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it’s still hard for me to get my head around how this IFC Midnight/Shudder production secured a theatrical release in the first place. There’s almost no plot, almost no dialogue, almost no on-screen action – as I was watching, I was most reminded by La Jetée, the 1962 time-travel “movie” that served as partial inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. La Jetée, is composed of still photos that form the narrative, and like La Jetée, Skinimarink is mostly a series of fixed camera shots of parts of the house where the story takes place, interspersed with shots containing limited movement (the children’s feet, vintage cartoons playing on a TV screen, Lego bricks being pushed around). There’s no musical score, only the omnipresent pops, hisses, and scratches you’d find on an old recording.
The movie opens with the date 1995, but don’t try to spend any time figuring it out – to my knowledge the movie isn’t based on any kind of real-life event, and presented as it is, there’s no real indication when the story (for want of a better word) takes place.
Based on my description of the movie – which is pretty accurate – you might find it conflicts with reviews you may have read comparing it to the Paranormal Activity movies. Those are NOT accurate comparisons. A closer analogy might be some of the Twin Peaks season 3 episodes, but even there the comparison breaks down. The closest analogy to Skinamarink that I can think of is watching someone’s film school project, something designed to get grades based solely on artistic vision. And a 100+ minute project at that. For long stretches, nothing actually happens, in fact there are only suggestions that things are happening, and as to what is happening … well, it’s anyone’s guess, really.
So why am I conflicted? This review isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of the movie. I was bored for most of the running time, and even nodded off at one point. I was infuriated many times, mostly for the overuse of the public domain cartoons and their annoying old-timey music. I was similarly peeved by the clear self-indulgence and pretension of making a plotless, storyless art project 100+ minutes long. The old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes describes this to a T. You’re not sitting through a movie, you’re sitting through an experience, and so long as you go in prepared for that sort of thing, you might get something out of it. This could easily have been a half hour short, and would have worked better than it does, and that’s about the length I would have really liked it. Give me a camera and $15K, and I could see myself making this kind of thing, though – so I’m not hypercritical of Ball’s intent at all. It’s dreamlike and unexplained, and some elements of it are exactly why horror is my favourite genre. It feels like waking up at two in the morning and stumbling into the living room to see some weird public access thing is playing on the TV you forgot to shut off before going to bed – hey, maybe that’s the reason for the “1995” at the beginning! You stand transfixed, not knowing what the hell you’re looking at, before waking up and realizing you just want to pour a glass of water before going back to bed. I like weird. I like experimental. I like that time between waking and sleeping, and Skinamarink gave me echoes of that – unfortunately, it wastes its goodwill on a running time that was way too long to maintain my interest level.
© Andrew Hope, 2023