Skinamarink: one of the most significant horror films of the lockdown era

Kyle Edward Ball’s debut feature, set in a sort of Lynchian void, breaks rule after rule to create a nightmarishly unsettling mood piece.

Skinamarink (2022)Shudder

Characters in David Lynch films frequently fade into liminal spaces of unimaginable terror – behind the radiator in Eraserhead (1977), or the shadowed hallway in Lost Highway (1997). Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink takes place entirely in such a void, created inside the filmmaker’s family home. Here, not only do laws of space, time and physics break down, but all rules of narrative are on hold. If there’s a story, it’s an echo of Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck (1953), in which Daffy Duck is tormented by an animator who erases and repaints the background world (and Daffy’s body) at random, subjecting the cartoon duck to a range of assaults made possible purely by the malign genius having complete authorial supremacy over the enclosed world of the film.

In Skinamarink, two children – ten-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) and four-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) – find themselves without their parents in a house whose doors and windows have vanished. 572 days pass and the children realise they are not alone in the house, and that the other presence may bear them malice. At one point, echoing an image from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), the entity takes away Kaylee’s mouth, as revealed in a shot which is also the film’s only interpretable facial close-up.

In the final moments, a blur appears that we have to read as a face – carrying on the Lynchian theme, it’s almost like a faded xerox of Robert Blake’s Mystery Man from Lost Highway – and coos, “Go to sleep” at Kevin, who twice asks, “What’s your name?” Presumably, it’s Skinamarink – the name of a North American children’s song – but maybe, like Captain Hook or Santa, it’s just Dad dressed up: the film can be interpreted as a child’s distorted memory of living in an abusive home.

Or perhaps it’s simply a nightmare. Ball began the project by making short films based on crowdsourced descriptions of bad dreams. The experimental aesthetic of Skinamarink evokes unrestful nights: low-angle shots of ceilings and door frames, prowls across floors covered with abandoned Lego, ghosts of out-of-copyright cartoons (featuring pointed rubber-reality gags and jangling, cheerily sinister soundtracks) on scrolling CRT screens, eyes revealed as features of a toy telephone with a smiling face and a menacing ring, the absence even of the children from shots they’ve just left or are about to enter. It’s a deliberately divisive, what-the-hell-did-I-just-see project – but among the most significant horror films of the lockdown era, inventing its own language to explore the world we might have discovered when, confined to our own homes, we were forced to look inside our own minds.

Skinamarink is now screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and will be available to stream on Shudder later this year.