Writer-director Kyle Edward Ball's microbudget debut is a terrifying exploration of the intersection between nostalgia and nightmares
In 2007, the term “creepypasta” was coined on the imageboard 4chan to describe the advent of horror legends posted on the forum, soon evolving into a catch-all term for dark web stories designed to be read alone in the dark as knots twisted in the pit of your stomach (have we not all at some point lain in bed, reading “The Russian Sleep Experiment”?). By their very nature – anonymous, plausible and addictive in that particular “doomscrolling” way – they epitomize the way that the internet, especially in those early days, could be a cavern of fear for a certain generation raised in the cold glow of our computer screens.
Filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball was firmly part of this group, and on his YouTube channel BitesizedNightmares would encourage viewers to send their nightmares for him to recreate in eerie, lo-fi horror shorts – “best watched with the lights off and headphones on.” His debut feature Skinamarink is inspired by several of his viewers’ comments, stitching together scenes of childlike fear to build an impressively anxiety-inducing debut that chills you with its awful, drifting terror.
An analogue horror in the vein of 2022’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the film is set in 1995 and centres on two preschool children. It’s shot from the hypnagogic POV of siblings Kaylee and Kevin, who wake up one morning to discover that all the windows and doors in their house have disappeared, and their father is nowhere to be seen.
As a one-sentence plot description alone, that’s pretty chilling. Skinamarink unlocks a long-fossilized fear that’s hard to describe: the memory of waking in the night as a child and thinking the coat hanging on your bedroom door is a ghoul, or believing that there is a boogeyman under your bed, a sort of early-years fright where you’re too afraid to move or speak, and unable to express why. You rarely hear or see anyone during the runtime; it’s 100 minutes of flickering TV sets and discarded lego, soundtracked to the cursed melody of vintage cartoons and the far-away mumble of voices that sound like they’re trapped at the bottom of a well. Ball deploys disconcerting low camera angles that find and focus on the covert horrors hidden in ajar doors and empty hallways; a colour palette of black and indigo, cursed and inky, haunts the film like a ripening bruise.
Skinamarink has had monumental word-of-mouth buzz since premiering at Fantasia Film Festival in the summer of 2022, where a pirated version was spliced and splashed across YouTube, TikTok and Reddit, touted as the scariest film in recent memory. While an unorthodox way to have eyeballs on your arthouse feature shot on a crowdfunded budget of under £10,000, it only builds upon the film’s innate fear. With its static, digital, beat-up look, it feels pirated, like we shouldn’t be watching it, like a memory of a childhood terror too personal and dreadful to share. It feels reminiscent of how teenagers felt like they were watching a snuff film when they passed around copies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the playground, and marketing for The Blair Witch Project listed the main trio of actors as missing or deceased.
It’s impressive and unique, using phonic manipulation and swirling darkness that leaves you scrambling to make sense of the murky pixels. What’s scarier than being alone and afraid, stranded in the liminal space of a haunted house? Thankfully the film is light on vibe-cheapening jump scares (though not entirely devoid of them), but it’s a shame that the runtime feels overlong: perhaps a punchy 80 minutes may have better suited the material, with many set to find it all a little repetitive and challenging.
But as a microbudget feat built on a simple concept – the blinding incomprehension of being young and scared – Skinamarink tiptoes masterfully around that fine line where nostalgia caves into nightmare. By the time it ends with a chillingly opaque final shot, you’re sure in the knowledge that something truly malevolent resides within this film.
Skinamarink is on limited release in the UK from January 13.Where to watch