by George Wolf
(Tom Hanks SNL voice) “My name is Kyle Edward Ball…and I’m going to scare the HELL out of YOU!”
And you know what? He just might do it.
Be extra prepared if the title Skinamarink reminds you of those fun singalongs from Sharon, Lois & Bram. Because Ball’s brand of nightmare fuel taps into the very essence of childhood fears, exploiting those exposed nerves with a committed resolve we haven’t seen since Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.
Is it safe? It is not.
Ball’s premise is brilliant simplicity. It’s 1995, and two young children, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) and Kevin (Lucas Paul), wake in the night to find they are alone, with the windows and doors in their house suddenly gone. In an instant, the stakes are familiar – but not because you’ve seen this before.
It’s because there’s probably some version of this nightmare in your past. You were just a kid, separated from your parents and trying in vain to reach them or call out for help, or maybe just escape.
Remember how scared you were? Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae do, and they twist that knife again and again for 100 slightly bloated minutes of dark, disorienting dread.
Cinematography and sound design are intertwined in an analog, cathode-ray aesthetic that recalls vintage, grainy VHS. The children whisper to each other (“Where do you think Dad is? I don’t know.”) as they wander from room to room, with Ball’s camera never allowing you one second of relief.
All through this fright night, familiar sources of comfort such as toys and cartoons turn eerily sinister, accentuating the feeling that it’s not just these kids that are in peril, it is childhood itself. POV is often at floor level, and then tight into a corner of the ceiling or high above the room and rising. You squint in the direction of the children’s flashlight, trying in vain to decipher anything about the house that will give you some sense of its layout, and you strain to separate the cracks of white noise from that deeper voice speaking to the children.
Come upstairs. Look under the bed. Close your eyes.
Ball started down this harrowing hallway by filming 3-4 minute short films of the actual dreams described by viewers of his YouTube channel. Some two years ago, his 29-minute short Heck emerged as the wonder of primal fear that inspired Skinamarink. And though it is a bit disappointing that the single most bone-chilling (and to be fair, most explanatory) moment of the short didn’t make it in the feature, Ball’s $15,000 budget buys much more killer than filler.
More than just nightmarish, this is a literal nightmare onscreen. And the intimate nature of nightmares means that the film’s patient, psychological assault is likely to bring out the “nothing happens!” barbs from those seeking more universally visceral thrills. But for others, the whispers of Skinamarink will hit like a sonic boom.
And they will be hard to shake.