Midway into the film, a disembodied voice whispers into the swallowing blackness: “look under the bed.” A young girl named Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) bends down to take a peek, the camera following her gaze. It’s not that nothing happens in this moment, but it’s the anticipation that sends goosebumps racing down the spine. What could be tucked away beneath a bed一the boogeyman, an impish spirit, a vengeful demon一is what real-life terror is made of. It’s bumps in the night, creaky floorboards, and wind rustling through the attic. When night falls, there’s no escaping it. That’s what it is like experiencing Kyle Edward Ball’s scary feature film debut Skinamarink, a highly-stylized lo-fi experiment in imagination and unbridled fear of the dark.
Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes a fear of the dark often relies on the power of suggestion一”due to the things [people] see or hear about, thoughts in their head (or) bad things they may have experienced.” Many fear-stricken sufferers have “a biological predisposition to fear and anxiety which could manifest at night,” Lewis notes.
Ball immerses the viewer in both fear and scary levels of anxiety in Skinamarink, tangling up these strands through pointed angular shots and the crackling filter of the camera. A single person’s “biological predisposition” becomes a universal thread and tethers each viewer to one another. The film sucks the air out of the room, and your muscles tighten over your armrest. And the darkness appears suffocating, yet limitless. It consumes the senses in such a way that you believe your mind is playing tricks on you. Fear throbs through your chest, and your body reacts in every way. Your breath grows shallower, as though someone has placed a plastic bag over your head. It almost hurts to be this scared.
“Fear is just like pain,” suggests Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Fear is there to protect us from possible harm, so that fear makes us more vigilant for possible danger.” He adds that fear-based impulses are likely evolutionary. “We were probably built throughout evolution, through natural selection, to develop this fear, and the dark would be one of those situations that we’re predisposed to fear more easily.” There’s also the belief that in pre-modern times, human beings were conditioned to fear the dark because apex predators were hunting us, Simon Rego, Psy.D., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, observes in this researched report. That’s certainly not the case now, considering humans rule the food chain.
Skinamarink is barebones storytelling, a terrifying, simple tale told through the eyes of two young kids, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee. The film opens with mumbled conversation and a TV’s gentle hum. Lights flicker, and almost instantly Ball drenches you in fear一the kind that sits in the back of your throat or climbs up your esophagus with an acidic burn. At one point, Kevin falls and bumps his head, warranting a drive to the hospital. “He’s…fine,” the father tells the mother over the phone later. He’s a caring father, that much is true, so when he inexplicably disappears into the night, it’s heartbreaking. Kevin and Kaylee are left wandering the halls with no possible escape, as the doors and windows have all vanished.
Kevin and Kaylee then decide to curl up in front of the television set in the living room. The screen’s warm glow anchors them, an escape from the imposing darkness crushing their shoulders. But before long, a blood-curdling voice emerges out of the pitch black to entice them from the comfort of cartoons and Lego blocks. Kaylee breaks off first while her brother sleeps. “Come upstairs,” the voice calls. She follows, tip-toeing up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. The lone night light is like a lighthouse along a craggy shoreline. The darkness swirls around it 一 but the light soon dissipates and disappears, too.
Kaylee makes her way into her father’s bedroom, where a figure perches on the bedside. You get the sense it could be her father, but it turns out to be the monster playing a sick game. “Look under the bed,” a voice whispers. Kaylee bends down, and the tension couldn’t be thicker. The anticipation about what could be lurking beneath the mattress reaches a horrifying level. The darkness penetrates your soul, and even though nothing ultimately pops out of the abyss, your body still contorts all the same. After a visage of her mother appears, speaking to her in hushed tones, Kaylee eventually finds her way back downstairs and inside the TV’s soothing light.
“Where did you go?” asks Kevin. His question goes unanswered. Even if Kaylee attempted to respond, her experience is unbelievable. Ball toys with dialogue throughout the film, often leaving lines hanging in the air like some trapeze artist stuck on a wire. It dangles in the air, as though someone’s taken a big gulp of air and is unable to release. The words are as ghost-like as the imagery laced like embroidery around the two characters. Heavy conversation pushing and pulling between them would not be nearly as effective; it gives room for what is said to worm into the skin.
Ball settles the audience back into constricted complacency 一 the expectation of horror continues as driving rivets 一 before winding the story up again. Soon enough, Kaylee disappears a second time, never to be seen again 一 until one of two well-placed jump scares reveals her whereabouts. Kevin discovers her in the basement where her eyes and mouth have been removed, because she asked about her mommy and daddy. That’s what the midnight ghoul tells him. Ball keeps the entity’s appearance a secret, and your mind races with a myriad of possibilities. A slack-jawed troll with a knobby nose and a hunched back; a human-like being that’d give Charles Manson a run for his money; or perhaps a presence that shapeshifts and dons whatever form it so desires.
Kevin is terrified and alone and begins playing with the creature. It tells him to do things as a game, like sticking a knife into his eye in what is among the film’s most awful moments. Blood splatters across the kitchen cabinet. Kevin’s cries tear through the air but are quickly muffled as the pain soaks into his body. Kevin calls 9-1-1 but loses interest and falls back into another game. Skinamarink unravels further with images of blood-soaked carpet and an expanse of disappearing toys on a ceiling splashing across the screen. They slip from our grasp and our understanding of what is happening. For some, nothing happens but such an interpretation devalues what Ball has masterfully created: a twisted, hellish nightmare of what it truly means to be scared of the dark.
If you’re afraid of the dark, you’re far from alone. Clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., notes that roughly 11 percent of the U.S. population harbors a deep fear of the dark. That’s millions of people. Millions of people clutch their bed clothes at night and make sure their feet aren’t poking out. Millions of people may even sleep with a nightlight or other light source, a beacon to keep them safe and secure from harm. The harm that could be laying in wait in the furthest recesses of their bedroom is unimaginable. It’s no wonder so many are afraid of the dark; the dark is a canvas, and we paint with whatever pain we have or the images that flutter in our brains.
In the film’s very last moment, the phantom peaks its head into view. It’s a blurry shot, but it suggests enough without giving much away. “Go to sleep…” it whispers into the audience’s ear. It’s not only a directive for Kevin but for us, too. Its sunken eyes look through the black screen and into our souls. There’s the sense it could slither right out of the screen and murder us; Ball has a way of suggesting even the most wild ideas that we can’t seem to shake. Kevin asks the entity’s name, but no response is given. Instead, its head begins to disappear into the static 一 leaving you breathless and anticipating the next big scare.
There’s a scary dread in Skinamarink that leaves its fingerprints on the brain. You can’t escape its grasp, and it lingers with you even when The End pops up on the screen. It’s never the end when every night we must plunge back into slumber and hope that whatever we’ve just witnessed doesn’t manifest itself in our own rooms. So, when you hear a bump in the night, the floorboards creak, and the wind rustles in the attic, just know it could very well be the same grotesque spectral invading your space. You may want to grab your crucifix. You’re gonna need it.
Skinamarink is now streaming only on Shudder.
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