SKINAMARINK – MY LIFE IN HORROR
The experience of Skinamarink is, for me, powerful, resonant and beautifully traumatic. The film is a wounded artefact in all the very best ways; an imperfect thing that makes a virtue of its imperfection, utilising those aberrations in form as a commentary upon the aberrations of its subject.
Thus far, My Life in Horror has focused on influences from the distant past; images and media exposures that informed a pupating imagination.
Not to give the audience temporal whiplash, but this instalment brings us screaming into the present with a film that was released this year, and has caused something of a stir among horror circles:
The independent, not-quite-found-footage, not-quite-documentary-horror film, Skinamarink.
As we age, those media experiences that prove informative, and cataclysmic to our mental topographies, become rarer and rarer. Try as we might, the proclivity to slowly fossilise as we age is all but ineluctable. As such, we find ourselves returning again and again to old favourites; to work that originally shocked and traumatised, that amazed and inspired.
In its own peculiar way, that status makes the experience that much more especially; almost miraculous in its rarity.
Skinamarink is one of those experiences for me, but it emphatically will not be for everyone:
This is a film that has absolutely no interest in reaching as wide a demographic as possible, nor does it seek to court or seduce everyone equally. It knows its intended audience and seeks to speak to them exclusively, in a language they will especially understand and that it utterly refuses to compromise or deviate from. Its visual syntax is the first thing most people will notice; the poor lighting, soft focus; the use of extremely low-angle shots in order to emulate the distorted perspectives of very young children.
Many will notice the long, lingering static shots of windows and doorways, of stairs, feet and ankles. They will notice the lack of faces or clear identity in its characters, the almost-total lack of introduction, exposition or even basic establishing scenes.
And, for many, that bespoke language will be too idiosyncratic, too alienating. The film takes pains from the first instance to repulse and alienate entire sections of its viewership. I don’t want to talk to you, it resolutely states, in the manner of a young child that knows its own intentions, I don’t want to talk to you or you or you or you.
You. I want to talk to you.
m down. To the force or entity tormenting them, they and their world are no different).
This is a film about childhood, but a childhood that most of us don’t remember, forgetting or softening in our minds as the years roll on for the sake of sanity:
This is not some halcyon delusion of childhood as drawn by an adult sentimentalist. This is the childhood of anxious uncertainty, of reality not-quite-baked or set by inherited assumption or certainty. This is a childhood where doors don’t necessarily lead where they did yesterday, where windows and rooms can shift configuration or state or nature in the blink of an eye, where irrational childhood fears and nightmares become actual reality, expressed by an entity that is Lovecraftian and unknowable, yet exhibits the most hideous familiarity to us all:
A capricious child, a cruel and demented creature that demands its “toys” fulfil particular promises, and has no compunction about breaking them when they do not.
This film captures and crystallises something so sincere about childhood, but that most adults refuse to remember, much less engage with:
The distorted horror of being barely born.
We are inculcated by culture to venerate childhood according to conservative preconceptions and parameters; to exercise nostalgia for the condition by reducing it in our own minds and memories to something barely real, in which we ourselves are reduced to cartoon-caricatures of smiling innocence and blithe abandon.
Skinamarink crashes into that suite of assumptions with the pulverising force of a rabid T-Rex. It rails in violent fury against a culture that dares reduce its children to dolls and caricatures and deny them their evident and overt emotional complexity.
The children of Skinamarink are not, as so many in horror media are, vessels of adult concern: They are their own peculiar, perverse, mercurial and sincere entities operating in a status quo that is strange and terrifying, but that they accept far better than any adult might. For them, it is perfectly reasonable that reality might abandon or upend its established laws from day to day. In their preconceptions, the division between nightmares and waking reality, between the conscious and subconscious realms, hasn’t yet crystallised. As such, they exercise a level of acceptance towards the abstruse horror on display a horror that operates on existential levels, arbitrarily shifting and rearranging the environment around them-, that is, in itself, utterly, obscenely terrifying to adult eyes.
Part of the sincere genius of the film is the manner in which it exorcises all adult influence or intervention:
Not only does it remove the anchorage and ostensible protection that might be afforded by the parental characters, it also excludes the audience by dint of its medium, placing us in the highly uncomfortable position of passive voyeurs to its cruelty, beyond the barrier of the screen. We cannot intervene in the hermetically-sealed environment it creates around its characters; we can only watch in increasing, empathic dread as it slowly escalates its “games,” tormenting the children to the point that it takes them beyond any bounds of sanity.
This is the game of a deranged child with the power of a god; a twisted reflection of the imaginative play so many of us engaged in at the protagonist’s age.
One sincere reading of the film is that it manifests exactly that: a child’s nightmare or paranoid projection of its own essential dreads and terrors: Parental abandonment, environmental instability, and cruelty that occurs without logic, obvious source or remit. The origin of the child-like malevolence in question is one that recurs in analyses of the film:
Is the phenomena a by-product of the main child protagonist’s own fevered imagination, a projection of his uncontrolled, unreasoned dreads and fears into a self-contained nightmare-scape? Or are he and his sister merely characters in the absurdist theatre of a greater game, one whose originator we never know or understand the nature of?
The experience of Skinamarink is, for me, powerful, resonant and beautifully traumatic. The film is a wounded artefact in all the very best ways; an imperfect thing that makes a virtue of its imperfection, utilising those aberrations in form as a commentary upon the aberrations of its subject. It stirred in me a species of existential anxiety I barely recall from the twilight hours of my childhood bedroom when sleeplessness conspired with the fever of developing imagination to make the world a nightmare kaleidoscope, every door, window, recess and shadow pregnant with potential atrocity. The intensity, the sincerity of that fear is something we can barely comprehend as adults, no matter how earnestly we might try to conjure or contrive it.
Skinamarink, for my money, comes closer to that evocation than most works of horror even attempt.
It is a dismal, barbed, threatening crawl through darkness and broken toys. It is childhood as a labyrinth of terrors, without cleanliness, without explanation and without resolution.
And a great swathe of you reading this are going to powerfully hate it.
By George Daniel Lea