Writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s horror philosophy is deceptively simple: “Scary fades, creepy is forever.”
“Creepy is an intangible thing,” he elaborated to Jezebel during a recent Zoom. “Like, sometimes if something creeps us out, we can’t even necessarily say why, it just does.” Though Ball is a first-time director, he already knows what it is to get under people’s skin—his haunted-house horror film Skinamarink has the kind of virality that’s rare for a small, indie movie and rarer still for experimental cinema. A moving blur of domestic terror that comes in the form of hypnotic, often static shots (seemingly mundane...until they aren’t), Skinamarink is an experience that is hard to describe, though its trailer does a very good job of summarizing the overall feel of it:
Since it debuted at the Fantasia Film Festival in July, the buzz around Skinamarink has gotten louder and louder, like hiss from a detuned TV that burrows itself further into your brain each minute it’s been left on. The white noise started to roar in November, when the movie leaked on torrent sites and more people were exposed to it. “Skinamarink is 100 minutes of pure dread” went the title of one typical Reddit post. The praise was so effusive that it led some to wonder whether the movie was being “astroturfed”—that is, marketed via reviews and comments attributed to laypeople but actually written by those connected to the film. Ball denied this, and said that his requests that potential viewers not torrent the film and wait for its release were sincere, not underhanded attempts to Streisand effect the movie into infamy. (For the record, Jezebel found that many of the early reviews on Reddit came from longstanding accounts.)
The praise has only flourished, with the New York Times naming the movie a Critic’s Pick and Jezebel sister site the A.V. Club rating it an A, writing: “We have a long way to go in 2023, but Skinamarink is already a top contender for the year’s most frightening film.” But the movie is divisive. For some, it really clicks—one Letterboxd user put it this way: “You know when it’s dark and you think that pile of clothes in the corner of your room is a person? That’s what this whole movie feels like. Fucking terrifying.” In the words of another: “Was everyone else just watching grainy clips of Legos or did I watch the wrong thing?” This undoubtedly owes to the film’s experimental nature. It’s heavy on atmosphere and lingering close-ups on walls where little, if anything, is happening. We only get a vague sense of what’s going on—two young kids are alone in their TV-lit home…until it turns out they aren’t, and an increasingly demanding demonic entity makes itself known. We barely see the characters’ faces and are virtually adrift in terms of context.
That’s all by design as Ball deliberately plays with the very primal fear of the unknown. The writer/director said that he had devised backstories for the absentee (…or are they?) parents, but he won’t share what they are. “I’m only going to hint at what it is, because I want the viewer to make up their own stuff in their minds. I want to grant that the audience has a brain and can be imaginative and can put the pieces together. I like it when movies don’t 100 percent always tell us what’s going on and let us get in our own head about things.” He maintains that his story is linear, with an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and descending action, but acknowledges that within Skinamarink, “There are mysteries for me.”
Still, he said, “If people pay attention, they see it’s basically a Hansel and Gretel story.”
Since 2017, Ball had been uploading short films with crowd-sourced concepts to his Bitesized Nightmares YouTube account. The nearly 30-minute Heck, uploaded in July 2020, was envisioned as proof of concept for a longer feature—it lay the foundation for Skinamarink and is formally similar. Ball acknowledged that Heck “never blew up by any means” and was accepted to only one “small” online film festival (Fantasia, which would premiere Skinamarink, rejected Heck), possibly owing to its 30-minute runtime, which is long for a short film but way under feature length. He nonetheless fleshed it out to a full feature “because I loved the finished product that I made.”
Skinamarink is not merely boldly experimental—it is proudly so. “There’s been an idea for a long time that experimental cinema is dead, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think it just went to YouTube,” said Ball. “I wanted to see if I could bring experimental cinema out of YouTube and back into the theater.” Its title derives from the song “Skidamarink” (aka “Skid-dy-mer-rink-adink-aboomp” aka “Skiddy-Mer-Rink-A-Doo”), which Ball was surprised to hear in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as he had assumed it originated with the Canadian trio Sharon, Lois & Bram, who popularized it on their ‘80s children’s program The Elephant Show. “I researched it and saw it’s actually from the turn of the [20th] century, and the word stuck in my head,” Ball said. “And I thought that would be an excellent working title for the movie, because it’s sentimental—feels personal to me, but personal to others. It evokes childhood. It’s nonsensical.” The working title eventually stuck.
On a budget of about $15,000, Ball shot Skinamarink over a week in August 2021 at his parents’ house in Edmonton, Canada. He said that his screenplay was precise in terms of mapping out shots: “In the script, there’s parts where it literally says, ‘We hold on this shot of a hallway for 45 seconds.’” But during editing, he played more with timing, composing his movie like a song and going with his gut. “It was more an organic thing,” he said of his process. His original cut was 20 minutes longer, which meant the movie’s running time was a full two hours, but after he received feedback about its length, he started hacking away at it. “It just went back to trimming the song down so that it sounded good.”
The open-ended Skinamarink functions like a Rorschach test, and one of the loudest complaints from its detractors is that it’s too slow. “Maybe it is a little bit too slow,” Ball conceded. “Maybe I could have trimmed it down a couple minutes, but it’s subjective, right? Like, I showed my boyfriend the version that’s 20 minutes longer, and he didn’t think I needed to cut out a single second. So, I don’t know.”
Regardless, there is a very visible segment of its audience who has found the movie to be arresting. Ball said that at Fantasia, he “just watched the audience” take it in, rapt. He was surprised when about 80 percent of the crowd stayed for the Q&A, as the movie screened around 10 p.m. and by the time it was over, it was around midnight. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, aren’t you guys tired? I am.’”
Ball seems genuinely touched by the response. “It feels like my dreams are coming true, but they look vaguely different than what you would expect,” he said. Luckily for him, not all dreams are nightmares.
“Skinamarink” is now in theaters and will stream on Shudder later this year.