Not seeing is believing
Of all the found footage movies I’ve ever seen, Skinamarink is the film that best replicates the power of the style’s ur-text, The Blair Witch Project, which is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. And Skinamarink is not even a found footage movie, not really, though it certainly borrows the aesthetic.
A micro-budget production from Canada quietly released on Shudder, Skinamarink has already started to build a cult following. It is part haunted house nightmare, part experimental slow cinema. It tells the story of a young brother and sister who wake up alone in their house, their parents nowhere to be found. Very quickly (or at least quickly in the scope of this film) strange things start happening. Doors and windows disappear; furniture rearranges itself in unnatural ways; and… hey, is that a disembodied voice I hear?
Skinamarink has one of the most uncompromising visual schema I’ve ever encountered in a film. Even my plot description above gives the film a bit too much credit for clarity of depiction. The footage is shot entirely in low light in confined spaces with shots that barely capture their ostensible subject. Often, for example, the camera points toward a corner where two walls meet ceiling, and we can maybe see the edge of a table or chair, possibly a shadow. And that’s it, for 30+ seconds. Occasionally, we’ll see grainy footage of a public domain cartoon playing on a CRT TV. When we actually do see the siblings, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), all we see are their legs, barely in frame.
The film is a triumph of slow, bubbling tension. The reason it reminds me of Blair Witch is that it leverages that old chestnut that it’s scarier not to see something than it is to see it. Shadows and off-screen noises, when artfully done, are a lot more horrifying than a monster in plain sight. “Shadows and off-screen noises” are almost entirely what Skinamarink consists of: It’s an unrelenting barrage of near-sightings of potential somethings.
But Skinamarink does something that Blair Witch doesn’t do that frankly feels kind of cheap: Every fifteen minutes or so it unleashes a gnarly jump, a screeching sound accompanied with some terrifying or bizarre image seen for just a couple seconds. (It feels more David Lynch-inspired than found footage in this regard.) To give Skinamarink some credit, it gradually teaches its audience how to watch it, and that includes the cadence of the jump scares. This only amplifies the tension when we’ve gone a few minutes without one. But it still feels slightly against the spirit of the project to arbitrarily crank the audio and startle the audience.
The content of the horrifying unfolding episodes is all stuff straight out of childhood nightmares. It’s the experience of being a kid and waking up in an unfamiliar place, perhaps on vacation or at a relative’s house or maybe just in your own room, and not recognizing that shadow on the wall or the faint, buzzing noise you hear. It’s probably an air conditioning vent, but it feels so much more sinister at 2 AM when you’re wandering the hallway trying to find the bathroom.
Many of these scenes hint at some underlying trauma, perhaps divorce or death of a parent. Other episodes dwell on the agony of being ordered to do something that you dread or that goes against your own instincts. Is there a more universal childhood experience than being told to do something you don’t want to do by grown-ups?
And now I must confront the movie’s backbreaking flaw. Skinamarink is about 100 minutes long. For a normal movie, this would be a perfectly reasonable runtime. For an indie horror movie, this is a bit on the long side. But for a film so essentially defined by the absence of content and clarity, this runtime is egregious. It should have been closer to half the length than what they actually landed on. Maybe 75 minutes would’ve worked. I think again of Blair Witch, which had the sense to wrap up by minute number 80.
Tension for a short period of time is scary and suspenseful. Tension for a medium period of time is nauseating and dread inducing. Tension for a long period of time is just plain boring. Around the hour mark, I started checking my watch. That is a death sentence for moving like this, which desperately needs you to be locked in on its wavelength and fully immersed in its mood.
But Skinamarink should feel no shame, because it really is quite unique and effective. I just wish there was less of it. So while Skinamarink is something memorable and haunting, it remains right on the cusp of greatness without quite reaching it.