In 2008, psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky scared people into seeing things that weren’t there. In a study, they simulated loss of control in one group of participants, then showed their subjects a series of distorted black-and-white images. Some of the pictures contained the obfuscated outlines of actual things — a horse, a planet, a sailboat — the rest were just staticky abstractions. The group that had been made to feel out of control was more likely to name images where there were none to find.
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This may be why some vocal fans of “Skinamarink,” a microbudget horror film by Kyle Edward Ball, are calling it haunting, unforgettable, and disturbing. They’ve watched a very confusing, slightly unsettling movie and found shapes in all that noise. (Literally — the film is mainly comprised of dark, staticky images.) For those of us immune to its tricks, this experimental rumination on…something — child neglect? Fear itself? Carpeted floors? — is so self-consciously unconventional that it is practically meaningless.
“Skinamarink” has no straightforward plot, but here are a few things that happen in the film: A young boy named Kevin (Lucas Paul) sustains a head injury. He and his sister, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetrault), are unable to find their dad (Ross Paul). There are some windows and doors in their house, and then there are not. They set up camp in their downstairs TV room with an endless loop of old-school cartoons. A malevolent, supernatural presence has ostensibly set up camp on the top floor, where their bedrooms and their parents’ room is.
All of these things may be pieced together by viewers eager to glean meaning from such endlessly vague filmmaking, but you would be blameless if you didn’t want to bother. Not only do Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae mostly refuse to show any of the character’s faces (or even torsos), they’ve stuffed the film with shots of the house that are so oblique and disconnected that its layout is nearly inscrutable. The bedrooms are upstairs, the TV room is downstairs, by the kitchen. If you want more information about this place or the children and demons that occupy it, tough luck. If you like unlit, canted-angle shots of walls and floors, then by all means — run, don’t walk.
“Skinamarink” offers little tell to compensate for its lack of show. There are easily less than 300 words said in the entire film. (To give you an idea from the other end of the spectrum, some “Gilmore Girls” fans reportedly clocked the show at an average of 100 words per minute.) Kevin and Kaylee rarely rely on each other for reassurance, help, or company, nor do they cry or lament their situation in any way. They whisper to each other every now and then and scream two or three times. If you’ve ever spent time with small children, especially distressed ones, this will ring false.
Sometimes even the dialogue we do get is intentionally obfuscated. The film’s scattershot subtitles won’t match up with its speakers or dialogue, or there will be no subtitles for garbled words. This may be an attempt to immerse viewers in the children’s perspective. Still, the lack of cohesion here — as with the camera, which appears to take the children’s point of view or an omniscient one on a whim — makes it all fruitless and frustrating rather than frightening.
That’s not to say that “Skinamarink” never attempts horror. It is intentionally disorienting, and its vagueness translates as creepiness for at least a little while if you try to look for menacing faces in all the darkness. There is even an impressive, climactic sequence early on featuring the kids’ parents. (Jaime Hill, as the mother, is particularly spooky.) But the film then stretches on (and on and on…) to an audacious 100-minute runtime, with little more than some artless jump scares and shock-value child endangerment to keep you awake.
It makes sense to start this film with your hackles up, especially if you’ve heard all about how unsettling it is from TikTok. And it’s undeniably impressive that such a tiny movie has garnered such a reputation. Ball has made an interesting attempt here, and it will be exciting to see what he does with a little more money and, hopefully, restraint. In the meantime, unless you want to tirelessly search “Skinamarink” for creepiness in all this filmmaking fog, you’re likely to find there’s very little there there. [C-]