Skinamarink first published by Little White Lies
The title of Skinamarink derives from the name of a popular North American nonsense song for preschoolers – and Kyle Edward Ball’s debut feature tracks preschooler siblings Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) as they experience an irrational world that they do not fully understand.
That world is their home at night, which the film never leaves – and the siblings’ limited perspective is reflected in Jamie McRae’s cinematography, which shows largely empty rooms and corridors from a low angle that imitates a child’s eye view, even if there are only a very small number of actual POV sequences, one focalised through Kaylee in their parents’ bedroom, and another through Kevin in the film’s closing section.
The children’s incomprehension is also conveyed by a fractured mode of editing which cuts from one interior to another before a scene has in any obvious way ended, even as the sound from one room may (or may not) bleed into the next. Much as the siblings build houses from Lego, Skinamarink is itself pieced together from narrative discontinuities which become ever more pronounced as Kevin becomes increasingly lost in the mysteries of his nocturnal environment.
Kevin’s disorientation – his inability to sort reality from mere fancy – is also expressed by the film’s decentering approach to the house’s residents. Like Alexis Bruchon’s The Woman With Leopard Shoes (2020), Ball’s film never shows its characters’ faces. The one exception, right at the very end, is eerily out of focus and obscured by static. Indeed, the only faces seen clearly here belong to cartoon figures on the television or to a toy phone – both as important as humans to a child still young enough to see the world in animistic terms.
Skinamarink comes at a decidedly experimental end of genre cinema. Set in 1995, and looking as though it had been filmed on domestic camcorders from that time (in fact it was shot digitally), Skinamarink has a grainy appearance that often reduces the house’s darker spaces to a lo-res miasma of impenetrable pixels. The dialogue, when not subtitled, can be difficult to decipher and comes disembodied (no faces or mouths are shown). The space in which the film’s events unfold shifts and seems unbound by physics. The chronology, too, is paradoxical, with ‘actions’ at times looping or even reversing, and one late title suggesting that far more than a single night may have elapsed (indeed repetitions and longueurs make the film feel absurdly overstretched, as though time itself has stopped). Very few concessions are made to a viewer seeking simple narrative rewards.
A child’s anxieties about what might be under the bed or in the shadows are also precisely those primal fears that fuel horror, ensuring that, with all its obfuscations, evasions and abstractions, Skinamarink strips the genre down to its most basic elements: a vulnerable individual alone in the dark. Whether what we witness is somnambulant nightmare, panicky, partial processing of parental abuse or divorce, concussive hallucination, or genuine demonic incursion, Kevin’s inverted adventures are uncanny, oneiric and utterly unnerving.
Anticipation: Buzzy as a housefly
Enjoyment: Creepy – but overlong
In retrospect: Pure and primal child’s-eye horror
strap: Kyle Edward Ball’s experimental feature debut shows a home invaded at night by a child’s impenetrable anxieties