Never turn the lights off after ‘Skinamarink’

Skinamarink relies mainly on imagery to create its atmosphere, leading to an almost cerebral horror. The film is unique in that it capitalizes on the viewer’s mind to elevate the experience. // Photo courtesy of BayView Entertainment

Director Kyle Edward Ball brings childhood nightmares to life in the micro budget film “Skinamarink.” The Canadian experimental horror movie features two young children, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) and Kevin (Lucas Paul), who wake up in the middle of the night, only to find that their father is missing, along with all of the doors and windows in the house. 

The film was shot in Ball’s childhood home and had a mostly crowdfunded and minimal budget of $15,000. The idea came directly from the common nightmare trope that many people, including Ball himself, can attest to having as a kid: waking up to no parents and a monster lurking somewhere in the house. 

“Skinamarink” was created for the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, screened at several other festivals and was eventually pirated. From there, the movie went viral on social media sites like TikTok and Reddit. Finally, due to the overwhelmingly positive reviews, it gained a theatrical release in early 2023. It is being hailed as “one of the scariest films ever made” by outlets like Inverse, and for good reasons.

The movie is shot in the “found-footage” style, meaning it uses grainy, sometimes shaky camera-work shots to appear as if the occurrences on-screen took place in real life.

Manifestations of this style can range from the security camera footage of “Paranormal Activity” to the camcorder filming of “The Blair Witch Project” to the recording of “Host,” which took place entirely over Zoom. 

“Skinamarink” stands apart from other found footage, however, because despite the movie being 100 minutes, the audience will never fully see any of the actors’ faces. Instead, the camera occasionally catches a glimpse of pajama-clad legs or someone with their back to the camera — but never the full image. 

Most of the film contains long shots down dark hallways or across ceilings, close-ups of toys lying on carpeted floors and frequent slow panning across the room. 

Found-footage movies have a more limited scope of what post-production can add in terms of effects to maintain the image of the events being “real.” “Skinamarink” is lucky enough not to need overtly added effects to scare its audiences. 

Instead, camerawork and minimal lighting collaborate to capitalize on an inherent fear of the dark. The screen focuses on pitch-black halls and seemingly empty doorways for extended periods while viewers grow increasingly paranoid about what could be hiding in the darkness in front of them. 

This tactic is especially effective when one of the children (seemingly holding the camera) is instructed to look under the bed. She does so and sees nothing, but the action of slowly peering under the bed is enough to have viewers holding their breath in fear. There are a few scenes with dim overhead lighting, but most of the light in the movie comes from an assortment of household objects, such as flashlights, a night light and the glow of the television; all things that limit how much Kevin and Kaylee — and by default, the audience — can see.  

The muted lighting of the movie limits the audience’s vision, further enhancing the effect of their restricted view of the characters themselves. All of the events within the house happen outside the camera frame, leaving audiences only to speculate what could be happening. This way, the viewer’s imagination does much of the work in creating their own idea of what other entity is inside the house with the kids; in short, viewers scare themselves. 

This filming style serves to increase the audience’s paranoia. Because they cannot be sure when something will happen, they are always waiting, constantly on the edge of panic. This never ending suspense creates a scarier film because viewers are always prepared to go into fight-or-flight mode but never know when the moment will happen.

The apparent anonymity of the characters also emphasizes the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. People can only see the faces of people they already know while dreaming. Therefore, the fact that the audience can never see the faces of the children gives the whole movie an unsettling and sinister feeling. 

While many classic horror films use a backing score to create suspense and trigger an adrenaline response, “Skinamarink” does not. The use of instrumental or other auditory additions in horror — such as the iconic two-note theme from “Jaws” or the whisper from “Friday the 13th” — helps indicate that something is about to happen, usually a jumpscare of some kind. However, because the idea of “Skinamarink” is to be watching something real, no audio is added on top of it. 

Instead, the audience is frequently left sitting in the uncomfortable near-silence of staticky tape, broken occasionally by the whispers of the children, thuds, disembodied voices and grotesquely whimsical music of cartoons playing on the television. The realism of nighttime silence is enough to make anyone squirm with the knowledge that something is simply not right. They get no advanced warning before things happen, sitting in constant fear instead.

The way the screen focuses on objects in silence for extended durations increases jumpiness from those watching. Lack of noise increases the likelihood that focused viewers will be startled by sudden sounds from upstairs, downstairs and behind. There is no way to predict when a strange voice suddenly calls from within the dark. 

One moment is silent, and the next, an unfamiliar, inhuman voice is beckoning the children by name. It is the perfect representation of the paranoia of somebody — or something — watching, even when nothing appears to be there; it is positively heart-stopping. “Skinamarink” is a movie for horror fans who genuinely want to be scared. What it lacks in on-screen action and violence, it makes up for with its ability to put viewers on edge and keep them there for the next 100 minutes. Asking viewers to imagine what could be hiding in the room’s dark corners, the movie brings night terrors into the waking world in a new, creative way. 

The film is unlike any horror movie before it. Rather than relying on gratuitous blood and special effects, it is torturously deliberate in the seemingly random objects on screen, making one thing extremely clear: something is wrong — very wrong. 

Though it is not a “traditional” horror movie, “Skinamarink” is successful in its designation to get inside viewers’ heads and let their imaginations create the kind of fear that steals a person’s breath away.