By Jason Adams | Film | February 2, 2023 |
By Jason Adams | Film | February 2, 2023 |
When I was a little kid I had this recurring nightmare about a red woman floating at the end of the darkened hallway outside my bedroom. For some reason, I knew it was a woman even though I couldn’t see a face per se, but that’s all I can remember—this faceless apparition the color of crimson suspended specter-like in the shadows, about a foot off the floor. Nothing else happened in this “nightmare” but even now, recalling it, everything inside of me still trembles a little, as if she’s the key that will undo me. As if thinking about her will yank me back through time, revealing that my entire life up until this moment has been a dream and it’s always been and always will be me looking down that hallway, waiting for this horrible red thing to turn toward me, show me her face.
Director Kyle Ball’s utterly unnerving and absolutely singular feature-film debut Skinamarink, a waking nightmare that just premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival this week and in the process of so doing threw down the gauntlet to all horror movie makers henceforth, brought that red woman right back to me. It brought all kinds of nightmares back to me. Horrible things covered in dust and soot at the back of my brain that have apparently been sitting there waiting for a good shake, a good tap on the shoulder—an army of faceless apparitions all waiting for the signal, the go sign, that Skinamarink, nightmare waker, represents. Skinamarink, if you’ll allow it, will lull you into some kind of suspended animation trance-state, and Skinamarink will let loose absolute terror.
“If you’ll allow it” isn’t, I must warn you upfront, an easy ask. Skinamarink (seemingly and aptly named after the childhood gibberish song, a “dink” and a “do”) demands extreme patience from its viewers. I personally say that it rewards said patience ten-fold, but this isn’t in any way shape, or form a movie for the casual movie-watcher. If I just hand over to you the basic plot, which is that this movie is about two small children who are left alone by their parents one night as something scary inside the house comes for them, then you might mistake Skinamarink for a basic haunted house flick—a junior spin on Paranormal Activity. But woe be to anybody expecting to sit down with some popcorn and get themselves a tidy little jump-scare here. Skinamarink is easy’s antithesis.
Even reducing what the experience of watching this movie to a sales-line that occurred to me at some point afterward—that this is what David Lynch’s Poltergeist might’ve looked like—doesn’t do the truly experimental nature of Ball’s film justice. Skinamarink would be Lynch at his most aggressively inaccessible. There are of course passages in Lynch’s films that remain this stubbornly opaque, but Lynch almost always grounded them with something familiar for us to hold onto—before Laura Dern’s selfhood collapses in Inland Empire we’re introduced to the actress Nikki, and even when Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper has turned into that slobbering Dougie creature of The Return we feel that old yearning coffee-pie connection to him. But in Skinamarink I’m not sure we ever see a single human face straight on during the entirety of its runtime.
This movie is corners, it is ceilings, it is piles of static toys spilled on the floor. It is disembodied voices that often require subtitles because of murk, because of distance, because of whispery delivery or kiddie mispronunciations. But don’t get too attached! Don’t think you’ve found yourself on solid ground for a second! Because those subtitles in Ball’s extraordinarily diabolical hands will also become a weapon with which he will wound. Indeed anything you come to appreciate for clearing up any confusion at any point in Skinamarink will eventually be turned upon you—directness, the alphabet understanding of A to B to C and 1 to 2 to 3, will be undone, until all that’s left is an uncanny chasm, a seemingly eternal nothingness stretched before you like outer space spilled within. Ink blots poured straight into your soul.
So yeah, this is me telling you emphatically that this movie demands a lot from its viewers. But please also believe me when I tell you that I haven’t felt this challenged or this horrified by a film in a very long time. Literal guttural sounds of the purest terror fell out of me at several points across its span. This is quite plainly the scariest movie I have seen in a very very long time. To be quite frank I wasn’t sure that I even could be this scared by a movie anymore. Skinamarink taps into something deep, long thought buried, primordial—- that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night in your bedroom when you don’t yet even have the language to describe the darkness, or even an understanding of how doors work. The thought that the darkness and the nothingness is all that there is. That there is just void and void beyond it. A terrifying alone-ness, necessarily repressed, all right here right on hand, ready to turn and face you at last. I am undone.