For many, the genre of found footage and analog horror has remained on the fringes of mainstream culture despite its many successful cinematic forays such as The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. Once in a while, a film in this genre will generate buzz, especially among younger audiences (think teenagers or younger), who perceive seeing such a film as a challenge to their courage. Over the years since Blair Witch really kickstarted that trend, however, analog horror has moved away from the big screen and to much smaller ones. Where the genre seems to thrive regularly is in the world of video games where Youtubers and aspiring content creators will regularly challenge themselves to play games such as Lethal Omen or Discover the Ocean without getting scared. And Skinamarink has perhaps more in common with these games than it does with other films in this very specific genre.
Director Kyle Edward Ball got his start directing short films online that he would create based on people’s nightmares. Indeed, Skinamarink’s genesis started with a short online flim called Heck. Filmed on what seems to be grainy black & white VHS, Skinamarink follows two young children who find out that their parents have disappeared as well as any escape route from the house. They decide to sleep downstairs and watch the TV, which is inexplicably showing only public domain cartoons. Long stretches of the film are simply shots of corners, dark hallways, and other mundane-seeming objects and locations. They are shot at noticeably high angles to imitate the point of view of a child. Ball manages to create a sense of unease, knowing that he is playing on our anticipation of something popping out of the dark or something being under the bed.
It becomes apparent that most of the film will be this type of endurance test of not just dread but restlessness. In fact, its 100 minute run time ensures that Skinamarink overstays its welcome. In a game, there is a sense of agency, even if it is ultimately a false one, and for impatient viewers, they will feel this lack of agency even more. Boredom can certainly be an effective tool in film, as valid as any other emotion or reaction. Yet there is an effective way to use boredom in that the apparent lack of action on screen forces us to turn our laser focus on the smallest of actions. Skinamarink’s deliberate pace and monotony certainly does encourage this focus, but the boredom one might feel leads to…not much. There are certainly scares of varying effectiveness. A film like this doesn’t call for jump scares, and some of the revelations are actually excellent examples of how slowness and deliberation can still provide intense fear. There are even bizarre moments of humor, such as when random objects like toilets start disappearing. But the film ultimately lands in familiar and cliched territory for horror fans.
How much profundity one gets from this viewing experience is entirely subjective, as it is with any art. But Skinamarink feels frustratingly like a video game in which the main goal is to endure, not really scares, but dread that doesn’t linger long beyond a first viewing. And even the best video games have a hard time staying in a player’s memory when one is not actively playing it.
Ball clearly wanted his audience to feel the helplessness of the children at the center of this movie and how futile any of their actions were. He certainly succeeded, and at a budget of about 15,000 Canadian dollars, Skinamarink and Ball deserve to be applauded for their resourcefulness. But Skinamarink should have been about three quarters of its length. It seems to be working for the TikTokers and social influencers who have hyped up how scary this film is on social media, but it is telling that the overall perception of this film is to see it as a challenge and not as a piece of art to be thoughtfully considered.
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