Kyle Edward Ball’s debut horror entry meets, surpasses expectations
In the pre-Internet Before Times, network television, local radio stations, and analog (paper) newspapers offered the primary means of secondary, one-way communication. Only landlines, fixed and static by nature, offered two-way communication beyond face-to-face contact, leaving large gaps of time and space where family, friends, and acquaintances simply disappeared from their lives. Children saw their parents disappear for hours on end, their parents’ destination indeterminate and communication often impossible. Their eventual return into their children’s lives was, far more then than now, based on the simplest form of hope and hopefulness.
As a consequence, that left those same children relying for emotional and physical support from a combination of their siblings, their imaginations, or more likely than not, the cool, blue glow of cathode-ray television sets and a steady stream of standard, predictable programming to offer what used to be called “latch-key children” a sense of false comfort and security, temporarily forcing typical childhood fears and anxieties (i.e., abandonment, loneliness, etc.) into the background. It’s that primal experience for many Gen X’ers and elder millennials that forms the thematic and narrative backbone for writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s impressively realized feature-length, micro-budgeted debut, Skinamarink.
A horror film that veers into abstract, experimental filmmaking from the get-go, Skinamarink centers on a brother-and-sister duo, four-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) and six-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), and a seemingly endless dark night of the soul they experience individually and collectively when their father (Ross Paul) disappears without a trace. Their mother (Jaime Hill) also seems to be elsewhere when Skinamarink opens, suggesting that we may be watching the onscreen manifestation, at least in part, of the psychological trauma suffered by children when their parents relationship ends abruptly and irreparably, in turn shattering the sense of self critical to their development into emotionally stable adults. Then doors and windows disappear, suggesting an unseen presence has entered their home or transported them to a hellish dimension of its making, presumably to feed on their fears.
There’s more, of course, or to be more specific, less as Ball takes an elliptical, oblique approach to Kevin and Kaylee’s story of loss, abandonment, and survival. Shooting from odd, often fixed angles, deliberately cutting off screen space, and keeping the camera resolutely fixed with only a handful of deftly executed exceptions (i.e., handheld, floating camerawork), Ball’s film does, however, require a relatively high level of patience atypical for the genre, but for audience members willing to entangle themselves in Skinamarink’s hypnogogic, surreal entreaties, they will find more enough fuel to power disquieting nightmares or even sleep paralysis for the next several months.
For Kevin and Kaylee, the absence of their parents or a means of escape means they have to instinctively rely both on themselves and on the familiar routines and rhythms associated with everyday, pre-nightmare life. In short order, they retreat collectively to the family room, bringing pillows, blankets, and toys while videotapes of decades-old cartoons play in an endless loop on their oversized television. It’s almost — operative word being “almost” — to keep the increasingly malevolent offscreen presence from making itself seen and and felt. That it seems to speak in their absent father and mother’s voices, rebuking the children for their failure to follow its explicit orders, adds to cumulatively chilly, unnerving, disorientating effect that audiences who stick with Ball’s film until the final moments won’t be able to shake for days, even weeks.
Skinamarink opens theatrically on Friday, January 13th. Shudder has picked up streaming rights.