'Skinamarink' is a low budget horror nightmare that slowly possesses

Canadian horror exercise requires patience and imagination to help fill in the blanks.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Not a whole lot happens in "Skinamarink." But that's by design: the microbudget horror exercise is built almost entirely on mood, and is structured to play out in viewers' heads, with them connecting the dots to their own childhood fears. Its mileage will vary depending on factors outside the realm of what is happening on screen.

And what is happening on screen is lo-fi, slow and challenging, and unfolds on what looks looks like a discarded videotape from 1982. Fixed images appear on screen for long, unblinking stretches. A light flickers at the side of the frame. Voices are heard, sometimes accompanied by subtitles because they're so muffled as to render inaudible, and people, when seen at all, are usually reduced to a pair of limbs. Everything is dark.

A scene from "Skinamarink."

Still reading? "Skinamarink" is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, a triumph of aesthetics and atmosphere which lacks in necessities such as structure and payoff. It's an experiment, and as experiments go, it's successful enough to render writer-director Kyle Edward Ball a talent to watch. It's evident he's a master of mining existential terror from the most minimal of situations.

And make no mistake, "Skinamarink" is minimal. The setup, such as it is, finds two children at home, alone, at night. For a number of reasons, they can't sleep. Voices are speaking to them. Is it Mom? Is it Dad? Is it a demon? They shuffle between upstairs and downstairs, where a TV is playing old cartoons from the public domain, the kind that removed from context feel disturbing and unnerving. Strange things are afoot in the house, as doors, windows and even toilets appear and then vanish from view.

What is going on? "Skinamarink" is a nightmare, a child's nightmare, and it captures that feeling of being a kid, awake in the middle of the night, at an hour when things feel unfamiliar and more or less off and there may or may not be something underneath your bed, or in the other room, that wants to get you and is going to get you. It's only a matter of time.

Ball, who shot the film in his childhood home in Edmonton, forces the viewer to investigate the frame, looking for clues in the corner or the background, anything to help explain what is going on. Little emerges. His images unspool on what looks like a worn-out VHS tape, played too many times, with static dancing on screen like a swarm of microscopic bugs. The hiss and pops of old vinyl records make up the soundtrack.

Ball is clearly onto something, and a certain sect of horror cultists will lean heavily into "Skinamarink's" less is more style and approach. Yet for all its "Eraserhead" ingenuity and ominous "Blair Witch Project"-style creepiness — great signposts, both — "Skinamarink" is mostly build and little reward, like a rollercoaster that climbs the big hill but cuts out just before going over the top. But there's plenty of promise in that ascension, and there's every reason to believe there's more in store at Ball's amusement park. Can't wait for the next attraction.



Not rated: adult situations

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters