What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink

What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022

Want to be scared but can’t make it to the movies? Welcome to “What’s On Shudder?” a column by novelist Kit Whitfield.

We’ll be posting reviews of films on the Shudder streaming app. Everything discussed will be on Shudder UK at the time of writing, so you can go watch it if it sounds like your thing. Sometimes we’ll review a recent addition, sometimes pick out something interesting. If there’s something you’d like to hear reviewed, let us know!


What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022

Have you every seen Kyle Edward Ball’s YouTube channel? It’s called Bitesized Nightmares. It produces miniature horror films, analog style – and it’s the only time I’ve come close to a genuine anxiety attack from watching a one-minute short.

Excuse me while I spoil a sixty-one-second film, but it’ll help us talk about Skinamarink. Here’s what happens in Nightmare Forever: a door opens, but not to escape. There’s another door behind it. And behind that one, another door. And behind that one, another door. Then another. Then another.

Does that sound like a small bunch of nothing? Because it probably should. But here’s the thing: by the end I could feel my heart pounding. It’s the most uncomfortable short I’ve ever seen.

Watching Ball’s work is . . . well, there’s a trick to it. Not a clever trick, but you have to make up your mind to it: you mustn’t look away. Watching at home these days we’re often doing something else, me included: we check our e-mails, we eat our dinner, we fiddle with our craft projects. No judgement; it’s a nice way to spend the time.

What's On Shudder - Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022
What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022

But if you try that with Skinamarink, you will bounce off. What Ball creates is nightmares, and you have to be in the nightmare for it to work. Glance away and you wake up. Keep looking, and he’s got you.

You have to let him have all of your eyes.

And yes, considering what happens in Skinamarink, that is an upsetting thought.

The story sounds like a pretty standard spook house. A minor accident happens to one of two small children, but their father, over the phone, says the kid is fine. Later on they wake up. It’s night.

Their father isn’t there. Nor is their mother. Nor are the doors, or the windows, or the toilet, or the laws of physics. There’s no way out. Furniture is sometimes on the ceiling. Voices are speaking to them, and what looks like their parents definitely isn’t. Old cartoons play eerily on the television – not comforting ones, but Fleischer-era, all obsessively returning to the ideas of abduction and endangered children.

(Curious what cartoons? In Bimbo’s Initiation, the dog-like little hero falls through a manhole into an underground fraternal organisation that pursues him with death traps when he won’t join. Balloon Land, where the inflatable community is threatened by a pin-wielding monster that was woken from the forest because a little boy insisted on trespassing there. In The Cobweb Hotel, a Bluebeard-like spider makes an attempt on the lives of the newlywed flies who come to stay. Somewhere In Dreamland, two impoverished children escape their hunger into dreams of plenty. In Prest-o Chang-o, two dogs flee a storm and find themselves in a magician’s house at the mercy of a trickster rabbit – an early Bugs Bunny, fun fact. But not so fun when Skinamarink puts it on a loop of eternal illusion.)

In terms of plot this sounds like quite a normal horror movie, if unusually resourceful with the public domain. But here’s the thing about Skinamarink: the camera won’t look at the action.

Most of the shots, you literally can’t see what’s going on. It’s as if someone left a bunch of old camcorders lying on their sides, and what we get is wainscotting, ceiling corners, child’s-eye table legs. Mostly. We never properly see the children themselves; all we can tell is that they’re sweet to each other and they’re too young to understand just how appallingly reality has broken. We can’t help them. We’re a lost toy on their floor.

What's On Shudder - Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022
What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022

So to understand what’s going on, you have to watch. You have to watch every second.

Now, this is where Skinamarink may lose you. No horror movie scares everyone, but Skinamarink is unusually divisive: there’s those of us who rave about it and those of us it bores stiff, and the latter are probably quite exasperated with us. So I should say plainly that however you-just-don’t-get-it some enthusiasts might be, it’s not that you need to be particularly clever to appreciate this film. If anything, you need to be the right kind of gullible: it probably helps a lot if you’re prone to pareidolia. (That’s the brain overdoing pattern-finding, for those unfamiliar.

Pictures in the static and faces in clouds.) I know a very smart fellow-horror fan, for instance, who happens to have ADHD: they simply couldn’t get anywhere with Skinamarink because the rhythms of Ball’s scares and the rhythms of their attention were unfixably out of sync. Skinamarink pushes buttons in your brain and not every brain has the same buttons; asking some people to be scared by it would be like asking me to taste the soapy note in coriander, or not to taste the rabid-socks note in Brussels sprouts – I don’t have it in me. For all its quietness, Skinamarink is an aggressively physical film, and it either works on your body or it doesn’t.

So I won’t say you have to love it – but I will say that if you want to love it, you need to commit to trying. The first couple of times I tried it I stuck to my old casual ways; I was doing other things rather than paying full attention. And Skinamarink holds its nerve: it’s about twenty minutes before things really start to happen, and by that time I’d drifted away. It was only because I’d heard good things from people I respected that I decided I needed to give it a really fair shot: I put down my sewing, I faced the screen, and I paid attention.

And I found myself the victim of a kind of mythic abduction. I’d invited the vampire into my brain, and now it had me.

Skinamarink demands that you stare. And when you stare hard enough, your eyes start to play tricks on you. The only way to follow Skinamarink is with hypervigilance – you look and look and look for the threat until your brain fritzes into paranoia.

More than that, Skinamarink actually goes out of its way to bore you. For ages, nothing happens; it’s all hush and oddity and nobody there. It’s eerie, but it’s also dull. It drags. Time hangs heavy. You start to feel like you’ve been here for ever.

Then just at the point where you’re really sure nothing is ever, ever going to happen – things do. And they’re terrible. And you’ll never escape – because you’ve already been here for ever. You are marooned in a movie.

What’s On Shudder – Skinamarink, directed by Kyle Edward Ball, 2022

A very mild spoiler in this paragraph . . . at one point near the end, you’ll see a face. This is analog horror and the image is crackly so you can’t really tell whose it is. And that, if you’ve been watching like the film demands, creates an optical illusion: the special effects aren’t on the screen but in your own eyes. Your brain tries to see a coherent face, but because it doesn’t have have enough information, what you think you see is never the same face for a second. Is it male? Female? Young? Old? It keeps changing on you – not because of what’s literally there, but the way your eyes automatically draw pictures in static. It was magic in a way no special effect ever could have been; it was pure neurons. Pure human helplessness to process what’s before you. The call is coming from inside your head.

I’ve never seen a film do this before, but Skinamarink literally used the limits of my own body against me. It made me do things to myself.

This review will seem gorier if you’ve watched the film before. Skinamarink is like that.

This is one of those movies where you can find a lot of ‘ending explained’ pieces if you want because the story is hidden, confusing and ambiguous. I won’t say you shouldn’t look those out, but I didn’t feel the need to. It’s not movie-as-story; it’s movie-as-liminal-space. What happens to the characters matters horribly, but more than any other movie I’ve seen, things are happening to you too. Ball demands your attention, and once he’s got it he plays on it, and your brain and eyes – your fallible, vulnerable, assailable brain and eyes – do the rest.

You have to let it have you. It’s a monster. And it’s a masterpiece.

Kit Whitfield

Kit Whitfield

Kit Whitfield writes dark folk fantasy, most recently the Gyrford series: In The Heart of Hidden Things and All The Hollow Of The Sky, both of which were longlisted for BSFA Awards. Featuring fairy-smiths who forge the cold iron that repel malign spirits, belligerent bramble bushes, versifying pigs and a fiery dog that eats landlords. She lives in a London in a neurodiverse family and tries to grow pot plants.

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  • Kit Whitfield

    Kit Whitfield writes dark folk fantasy, most recently the Gyrford series: In The Heart of Hidden Things and All The Hollow Of The Sky, both of which were longlisted for BSFA Awards. Featuring fairy-smiths who forge the cold iron that repel malign spirits, belligerent bramble bushes, versifying pigs and a fiery dog that eats landlords. She lives in a London in a neurodiverse family and tries to grow pot plants.

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