The found footage genre continues to surprise as a fertile ground for new filmmaking talent. After The Blair Witch Project brought the style into the mainstream, it became commonplace over the next decade. Some of these films, like Paranormal Activity and REC became hits on their own merits. Many others struggled. Yet the process of crafting visual frights, above all else, remains alluring for filmmakers. Skinamarink, coming off an extremely successful limited theatrical run, lands on Shudder today. Director Kyle Edward Ball instantly proves he’s a talent to watch as the unsettling and disturbing film unfolds.
Two children wake up in the middle of the night, unaware their Dad has disappeared. Six-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) looks for her father, observing items seemingly disappearing and appearing at will. Meanwhile, four-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul), wants to play with his toys and watch TV. They become aware that the windows and doors to get out of the house have disappeared. As the night progresses, a voice begins to whisper from the darkness.
Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae build an unsettling aesthetic from the opening shots of the film. Their visuals harken back to the lo-fi camcorder days, creating grainy and disorienting shots. They limit the lighting throughout much of Skinamarink, further heightening the suspense. Often, entire scenes are lit by a television glow or flashlight. However, many of the shots do not come from the first-person perspective of our characters (although some do). Instead, Ball leaves his stationary camera focused on a singular object.
The editing soon becomes an integral part of watching the world around Kaylee and Kevin change. Ball also works as the editor on Skinamarink, where he proves exceptionally adept at his timing. On more than one occasion, he arranges a sequence so scary the audience will be left with goosebumps for minutes after the cut. One sequence involving a bed upstairs was so chilling in its length and sound design it sticks in your mind for hours. While Skinamarkink plays about fifteen minutes too long, the editing still shines through.
The sound team also deserves a massive shoutout for their lo-fi design. The mixing to create the voices in the darkness is exceptional, and while subtitles are available for some sequences, the audience stretches to hear the barely audible whispers. As the tension ratchets up, we are drawn into the sound, and the team uses this to create scares out of simple audio pops or full-blow electric spasms. Combining the repetition of screams, cartoon caterwauling, and the sound of bone crunching from the shadows makes for one of the most unique soundscapes of the year.
Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of Skinamarink is how selective Ball becomes in what we see. The way he constructs the film, and the angles he chooses, places us in the shoes of children. With the cacophony of sounds and scares, the placement of the camera helps us relive the scariness of youth. Just as children let their imagination run wild, Ball forces the audience to imagine what lies in the darkness. It’s a terrifying proposition, and letting our minds wander becomes an intriguing element of Skinamarink.
A stunning feature, Ball crafted a uniquely scary and unsettling debut. Few films in 2023 will be as scary as Skinamarink, and few will feel as technically proficient. The indie darling seems poised to make waves in the horror community and will certainly have detractors. It’s difficult to imagine a film so tense and so disarming will not have a long second life.