“Skinamarink,” Reviewed: Stunning Horror Images, Not Much Horror Story

The problem of genre is that the effort to satisfy built-in expectations gets in the way of a free approach to the subject at hand. The conflict cropped up recently with the release of “M3GAN,” and it gets an even more vigorous and troubling workout in “Skinamarink,” the extraordinarily original first feature by Kyle Edward Ball. Ball displays a distinctive sensibility that’s intrinsically related to the experience of horror itself, but he forces it into the confines of a familiar horror story in which he displays little interest or confidence. As impressive as the film is, the many thrillingly imaginative moments remain suspended and detached from each other, like scattered storyboard frames. The result is a film that’s accomplished but seemingly unfinished—indeed, hardly begun.

Ball made the film on a budget of about fifteen thousand dollars, entirely in his parents’ house, in Edmonton, Alberta, in which he grew up. It’s shot in a lo-fi (or simulated lo-fi) style, in plentiful darkness, with a seeming absence of conventional movie lighting, and its images are filled with the visual static of grain (the kind that results from low-light filming). Its few characters’ faces are mostly unseen (only backs or tops of heads, feet, and so forth), and they don’t speak very much during the film, either. The protagonists are two children, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) and Kevin (Lucas Paul), whose father (Ross Paul) leaves them alone in the house—until they discover that they aren’t. Their mother (Jaime Hill) is there, too, sort of, but offers little comfort or security.

“Skinamarink” (the song isn’t heard but it’s hinted at) presents a kind of objective subjectivity: an audiovisual representation of states of mind, even of memories, which are grafted onto a dramatic framework that’s a horror-film standby. The point of view that the camera shows is, seemingly, sometimes that of one or the other of the children, but the skewing and fragmentation of perspective suggests an attempt to recover the unworldliness and incomprehension of early childhood, the fragmentary incoherence of children’s experience, even the psychoanalytic substitution of heavily cathected and weirdly dominant minor objects or visions to stand in for much more momentous ones.

The images and sounds are even more startling than the concept that gives rise to them. The film’s most conspicuous quirk is the thick impasto of digitally superimposed grain to give the low-light movie the feel of pushing hard against its technical limits. (It was shot on digital video.) It’s an unfortunate imposition on images that are intrinsically beguiling in their composition, light, color, and action. Infinitesimal events count weightily in them but toll lightly through idiosyncratic framing and deft timing. (The cinematographer is Jamie McRae.) One image appears to be shot upside-down from the ceiling, as if someone were walking on it—tiny glimmers of light carry enormous weight in dark frames, as when the glow of a TV screen reflects off a doorknob and the knobs of a drawer. An image of a closet door sitting open is punctuated drolly by towels falling from a high shelf; the blades of a ceiling fan circle lazily past a blue ceiling; a touch-tone-phone handset that a child had been using to call 911 falls to the floor.

Though the action appears mainly in hints and traces, in its results rather than its causes, the movie’s strangest, most unusual motif involves the children’s main source of entertainment: cartoons, mostly black-and-white, seemingly from the nineteen-thirties, which play on a TV in the living room by way of a VHS tape. (One of them, “Somewhere in Dreamland,” is by Max and Dave Fleischer and features the voice of Mae Questel, best known for playing Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.) Snippets of those cartoons’ soundtracks turn up—often fragmented or hauntingly distant—throughout the movie. The cartoons’ images also appear onscreen, filmed directly from the television set, again often fragmented and, in one of the film’s most striking scenes, repeated with an urgent insistence: Ball shows a cartoon in which a dog is about to pounce on a rabbit, which, instead of fleeing or hiding, blips away with a special effect, and that moment of evasive trickery is replayed many times in a row, obsessively, perhaps desperately.

This sort of trickery via animation is echoed in the movie’s live-action special effects, as when a toilet appears and disappears in a bathroom corner (Kevin calls out to Kaylee, “You have to come see this”), or when a door mysteriously appears and disappears on a blank wall. “Skinamarink” is filled with such astonishments and their horrific correlates, including an appearance and disappearance of the children’s mother, and a mysterious adult’s declaration that he “can do anything” and that, to punish Kaylee, he “took her mouth away.”

Yet the movie’s horrors and uncanny aspects mostly remain at the theoretical level. Though there’s a general story that involves (avoiding spoilers) someone who doesn’t belong in the house and who’s doing the children harm, it remains too vague to register as more than a trope. Even when there’s blood, this comes off not as the culmination of a diabolical scheme or the dreaded conclusion of a regime of fear but as the fulfillment of a contract (not one between the director and any business entity but between him and his audience). The images appear to be the tip of an iceberg, but there’s no iceberg beneath them.

Filmmakers of comprehensive inspiration, ones who innovate most thoroughly at the level of image and sound, are similarly innovative in their approach to performance and in the relationship of image and sound to the underlying framework of the story—which James Gray describes as a film’s “architecture.” (That holds for venerable classics, such as those by Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, and Jean-Luc Godard, and also for more recent films by such directors as Julie Dash and Josephine Decker.) For “Skinamarink,” the images and sounds have no second level because the film has no referent world, no identifiable background, for them to symbolize or suggest.

By pure coincidence, within days of seeing “Skinamarink,” I watched another first feature that was shot entirely in its young director’s family home: “Oxhide,” from 2005, by Liu Jiayin. It’s been widely called a “no-budget” production: Liu did her own cinematography, shooting the film with a consumer-grade video camera. To create the frame for her Cinemascope-like images, she taped a cutout-paper mask to the front of the lens. The film has three actors: her parents and herself, playing versions of themselves. Her filmmaking, with its extended and static takes (averaging nearly five minutes each), slices the confined reality of the family’s daily life into oblique, weighty, yet fervently expressive fragments, which expand grandly on the basis of the copious dialogue and action that they convey—and the implications of the carefully constructed drama that she extracts from the stuff of their lives.

The closest thing to a story that “Skinamarink” has is the fascinating one that Ball tells, in interviews, about the development of the film. On the basis of online comments in which users described their nightmares, he made YouTube videos dramatizing them, and that’s where he developed the style that he extrapolated to a short film, called “Heck,” which served as a trial run for “Skinamarink.” He talks about the rules of production that he applied to the feature, about the experience of filming it in his family’s house, and about having had, as a child, a videotape of public-domain cartoons like the one that he uses in the film. It’s as if the real story of “Skinamarink” were the story behind it, the story of its genesis and its creation. If Ball decides to fashion such a story into an onscreen subject, I’d crave seeing the results. ♦

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