When I was a kid, I used to have horrific night terrors.
They were reoccurring – at their worst, happening nearly weekly – and they terrified me beyond anything I have since experienced in life. They would leave me trapped in an almost fugue state, eyes open and seemingly conscious but screaming bloody murder and completely incapable of being awoken by my concerned parents. This would happen from the time I was a toddler until well into my teens, luckily with less and less frequency.
It’s been over a decade since I’ve had one, and yet I’ll never forget the sensation.
And the most frustrating part of these nightmares was how abstract they were. It was the same few scenarios, the exact dreams happening over and over again, and I could recognize them as soon as they began. And yet, they were impossible to describe. The problem is, as many who experienced the same phenomenon can attest to, that what happened during these episodes really had no true rhyme or reason. They were less about concrete, identifiable threats or fears, and more about sensations. The feeling of sheer dread and doom, accompanied by nondescript, unknowable visuals that only served to reenforce the apocalyptic aura. To this day, I can only give vague impressions of what they entailed.
But now, it seems I finally have something I can point to as a pretty damn accurate representation of what these nighttime excursions into Hell truly felt like. Enter: Skinamarink.
If you’re a horror freak like me, you’ve probably heard a fair amount of buzz about this film already. This is largely due to a leaked copy that made its way online sometime last year. The film spread like wildfire, with segments being posted on Tik-Tok, Reddit, and YouTube demonstrating its eerie, dreamlike qualities. Luckily, I managed to avoid all of these spoilers, having early on heard first-time Canadian director Kyle Edward Ball’s pleas for audiences to wait until it was officially released to the public.
I managed to catch a screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse this past weekend as part of Shudder and IFC’s limited theatrical release schedule for the film, and let me tell you folks, I made some big mistakes right off the bat: First, seeing a late night, 10 PM showing, knowing that I would somehow have to sleep afterwards. And secondly, doing so on a weekend where my roommate was out of town.
Reader, I am literally writing this review because I don’t want to turn out my light and go to bed.
It’s 3 AM.
Seriously, Skinamarink got under my skin in a way unlike perhaps any film I’ve ever seen before in a theater. And I am glad I saw it on the big screen, rather than waiting for the inevitable Shudder release, because this is a film that begs to be not just watched, but experienced. Despite my believable façade as a horror pro, I’m actually a massive coward and scare extremely easily. Had I been at home, on my laptop or my own TV, I can almost guarantee that I would have watched a good 40-50% of this movie on mute. In the theater, I had no such luxuries. The best I could do was to plug my ears and wait for the inevitable scares, which oftentimes would never even happen.
Much like the nightmares of my youth, Skinamarink is all about the visceral and the sensory. The plot is virtually nonexistent: Two young children awake in the middle of the night to find their parents missing and the doors to their home fading in and out of existence. Then some spooky stuff happens. Anything else that may or may not occur is up for some serious debate. The film goes well out of its way to be as disorienting and cryptic as possible. You will never once be given a solid chance to get your bearings and parse out just what it is exactly that’s going on. The screen constantly jumps from angle to angle, room to room, like cycling through security cameras. Characters are only shot from the waist down. Voices are distorted and distant. Subtitles appear sometimes, but dialogue will also be presented as-is, with no help for the audience in deciphering what’s being said. Scenes are shot entirely with still images. There’s frequent and repeated use of black screens, adorned solely by film grain and audio crackle. You will stare at the same hallway about a thousand times, and it will utterly terrify you every single goddamn time.
There’s no sense of time, no progression of events, no cause-and-effect. Public domain cartoons blare through the sound of static on an old TV, while the sounds of footsteps echo overhead. Something in the darkness calls out, gives demands, asks for friendship. You’re in some unnamed circle of Hell, and you yourself paid for the ticket to this abysmal descent.
In a dream, logic often takes a backseat to the moment-to-moment events that your brain conjures for your nocturnal enjoyment or torment. Skinamarink operates in much the same way, expecting the audience to simply take things as face value and go with the flow, no matter how surreal and mystifying things may get along the way. At certain points, I wondered if the film was meant to be a metaphor for divorce, for abuse, or for some kind of religious notion like Purgatory. I quickly abandoned this search for meaning once I realized that the film was actively trying to punish me for this, going well out of its way to muddle any tiny glimpse I may have gotten behind the ideological curtain. Skinamarink doesn’t want to be understood; It wants to be felt.
And it certainly accomplishes this goal.
Much of the film’s creepiness comes from the sheer uncanniness of the whole affair, the crawling, looming sense of dread that permeates everything from the demonic rumblings of an unseen voice to the simple lighting of a floor lamp. I never thought the image of scattered Legos lying on a dirty carpet could illicit chills from me, and yet Skinamarink manages just that. It’s such a primal, inexplicable sensation, being frightened of something that you have absolutely no actual reason to be afraid of, no clear or present threat to speak of whatsoever. But that’s what this film does.
And yes, it also has a fair amount of traditional scares as well. There’s a few jumpscares in particular that made me glad I was sitting in the back row where no one could see me genuinely clutch my chest like an old man having an exaggerated heart attack in a bad sitcom.
I haven’t thought about those night terrors of mine in years. They don’t happen to me anymore, thankfully, having seemingly been a product of my adolescent brain that was cast aside as it matured and stabilized. But within thirty minutes of Skinamarink, I could feel them inching their way to the surface of my subconscious, eager to terrorize me once again. If I weren’t on a fairly powerful anti-anxiety medication nowadays, I could genuinely see myself having a panic attack while watching this.
But I suspect this is going to be a fairly polarizing film, when the smoke clears and everyone’s had their say. The early buzz online certainly points in this direction. It’s a slow film, one without a clear destination in mind, and I can see certain audiences being downright bored with it. I also think its particular flavor of fear is one that’s somewhat specific, if not completely esoteric. I had such a instinctual reaction due to my own specific set of childhood circumstances; Had I not been plagued with that particular affliction as a kid, I’m not sure what I would have thought of the film. Would it have scared me nearly as much? Hard to say, but I imagine that its real effectiveness is heavily reliant on a familiarity with the feelings that its characters are experiencing onscreen. If you yourself can’t relate, it’s entirely possible that Skinamarink may come across as nothing more than a pretentious, muddled, low-budget student film.
But for me, it awakened something that I thought had been exorcised a long, long time ago.
And I’ll be sleeping with the lights on tonight, I think.