If I were an ambitious producer of horror films, like Jason Blum, the first thing I would do this year is to offer a deal to Kyle Edward Ball, the writer-director of “Skinamarink.” But it would be a special kind of deal — comparable, in its way, to the one Mel Brooks struck with David Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man,” after Brooks had seen and loved “Eraserhead.”
“Skinamarink” isn’t like other horror films. Made for $15,000, it’s a hushed and nearly plotless experimental creep-out — a movie with barely any people in it (though a couple of child actors hover on the margins), one that consists mostly of static images shot inside a nondescript house (in fact, it’s the filmmaker’s childhood home) at what looks like 3:00 a.m. The film will open on Jan. 13 at selected megaplexes, and that’s the right place for it; you want to experience it with an audience, kind of like a séance. I found “Skinamarink” to be terrifying, but it’s a film that asks for (and rewards) patience, and can therefore invite revolt (not to mention abysmal grades from Cinemascore). Yet if you go with it, you may feel that you’ve touched the uncanny.
The lights are dim, the rooms and corridors are mostly deserted, and a typical image is a ground’s-eye-view of a carpeted hall, or an upward-angled shot of a doorway leading to blackness, or the flat messy tableau of a playroom with pieces of Lego scattered about — and then, with disquieting randomness, another piece will get tossed in from the side, and we can’t see who (or what) is doing the tossing.
As “Skinamarink” moves through these mundane domestic spaces, with each shot presented as one more piece of the spookiest of puzzles, the film invites us to get back in touch with every childhood fear you ever had about some midnight monster lurking in the shadows. Most of what we see is not supernatural, but there are images that tease us in that direction (like a framed doorway that suddenly vanishes). The film’s strategy is to get us to scan the shots for signs, which becomes a more and more hypnotic endeavor as we realize that, yes, there is a demon here, though it’s not like other movie demons. Horror films are often set in the dark. “Skinamarink” is one of the rare ones to evoke the terror of genuine godforsaken night.
The movie has even less story than “Eraserhead” did, though its dread-dripped, slowly unfolding nightmare-of-the-mind atmosphere owes a great deal to that 1977 classic. The snail pace, the corridors in which a murky half-light seems to flicker with the very pulse of electricity, the soundtrack drenched in imperceptible white noise, with old music heard distantly in the background (in this case, it’s mostly coming from ancient cartoons that are playing on a television set) — all of it is infused with a Lynchian mystery.
The influences don’t stop there. That TV set, with its insidious glare and a cartoon that keeps sputtering in one spot, is framed as if it were a portal, which of course makes one think of “Poltergeist,” though in this case there are no visible spirits coming out of it. “Skinamarkink” is like “Poltergeist” made by the Carl Th. Dreyer of “Vampyr.” Then too, the demon poetics are rooted in a documentary-like stalker ambience that evokes the unnerving opening of Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” in which a serial killer’s flashlight illuminated the shag-carpeted stairs of the home he was invading.
The hushed silence that’s actually a sound…the wood paneling, the old painted door frames, the nightlight that seems to vibrate…the camera that flips upside down, so that the film looks like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” lit by a cathode-ray tube…the Fisher-Price phone that seems almost alive…the whispers and the breathing…the wall dripping so unobtrusively with…wait…could that be blood?
Kyle Edward Ball, who’s Canadian, is clearly a connoisseur of primordial semi-underground horror, yet he works with his own visionary quirkiness. “Skinamarkink” was shot on analog film, using vintage cameras, and the cinematographer, Jamie McRae, does a remarkable job of drenching the images in early-’70s distressed grain. The vibe is very pre-technological. A title tells us that the film is set in 1995, which makes sense, since that’s the last moment before the rise of the Internet. You might say that the Web itself displaced demons in our imagination, because it was a kind of demon — a metaphysical connective force. There’s an ominous entity at work in “Skinamarink,” but it’s a spirit that can’t be separated from the ambience of anxiety that rules our heads.
There are characters, sort of: a 4-year-old boy, Kevin (Lucas Paul), and his 6-year-old sister, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetrault), whose parents have vanished, leaving them alone in the house. We see their legs, or the backs of their heads, or hear their voices with subtitles. And we hear a low voice murmuring, that we assume is the father and then realize is the demon. He talks like a serial killer, with an ominously gentle cold authority. “Kaylee didn’t do what she was told,” he says, “so I took her mouth away.” We think: Did he really? What happens in “Skinamarink” sneaks up on you so quietly that you aren’t just scared; you believe. But you also want to believe your eyes, and in the magnificent final shot the film gives us the vision we’ve been waiting for, a revelation of evil that has emerged from the next world, and from our world as well. It’s the movie that’s the portal, connecting the audience with the beyond.