news ‘Skinamarink’ Review: A Micro-Budget Horror Sensation that Feels like ‘Home Alone’ in Hell

Imagine if someone made an entire movie out of the last shot of “The Blair Witch Project.” Or a creepypasta remake of “Home Alone” steeped in the ineffable fear a young child would feel if the rest of their family abandoned them in the middle of the night. Or a slow cinema version of “Paranormal Activity” that ditched jump-scares for pervasive dread, maintaining the disembodied camerawork of a found footage film while inverting the formula to show a domestic possession from the house’s POV.

A micro-budget phenomenon that leveraged a fortuitous leak into the kind of buzz that an indie film can’t buy, Kyle Edward Ball’s deeply unnerving “Skinamarink” might be too indebted to YouTube horror trends to feel like a sui generis genre-changer, but this is still the sort of movie so committed to its own strange language that it’s best translated through references to more familiar work. If the final product amounts to a fucked-up tone poem rather than a full-cooked meal — an inscrutable, 100-minute nightmare that proves its own concept at the expense of developing it further — that uncompromised sense of experimentation also helps to demonstrate how vital horror movies can be at a time when the rest of the film world is too scared to try anything new.

Set in 1995, “Skinamarink” is technically about two little kids — 4-year-old Kyle and his 6-year-old sister Kaylee — who wake up in the middle of the night to find that their dad is missing, their mom is… also not there (“I don’t want to talk about mom,” Kaylee says), and strange noises are coming from the second floor of the non-descript Edmonton house where they live. Making things even more unsettling: All of the doors and windows to the outside world are gone, the TV is set to a menacing loop of public domain cartoons from the 1930s (which double as the movie’s primary light source), and the toilet keeps glitching out of existence (if the video game “Control” is ever adapted into a film, Ball should be the producers’ first call). There’s a naked Barbie doll stuck to the ceiling, and sometimes a strange voice beckons Kaylee to follow it to her parents’ room upstairs. It wants to play.

That may sound like a run-of-the-mill horror premise, but cinema has always been more a matter of “how” than “what,” and the opening shots of “Skinamarink” immediately make it clear that Kyle and Kaylee’s home is a long way from Blumhouse. Any clarity beyond that is hard to come by: Shot on a Sony FX6 and “gritted to within an inch of its life,” Ball’s $16,000 debut is a sea of fuzz so dark and dense with secrets that the texture of the image itself becomes the film’s greatest source of tension, as well as its primary subject. Every shot is a veritable sandstorm of digital grain, soundtracked to a steady analog hiss and swirling around itself until static backdrops flicker into Rorschach-like terrors and something as banal as the dark spot on a bedroom wall starts to seem like a portal directly into hell; the harder you squint, the scarier it gets.

That’s a neat trick in a movie that could use another one. While “Skinamarink” is rather devious for how it lulls viewers into an uneasy stupor — Ball’s esoteric design and go-nowhere pace lower your guard just long enough for him to slip a couple of insidious jolts past your defenses — the film’s somnambulant rhythms soon become as static as its backdrops, and long stretches of naked ambiance separate the spine-tingling setpieces. A certain amount of boredom works to the film’s advantage, but Kyle and Kaylee’s implied neglect curdles into something more posed than sad when left alone for several minutes on end. Heartbreaking as it is to watch a 4-year-old try and make sense of his own Twilight Zone-like abandonment (particularly because “Skinamarink” lets its scared and confused little kids act like scared and confused little kids), that ache starts to fade whenever Kyle and Kaylee feel as carefully arranged as the toy blocks that someone — or something — has scattered all over the floor.

Of course, it’s no accident that the children are so obliquely framed. Like phantoms caught between worlds, they’re never even seen in full. Instead, Ball cuts them up into a haphazard series of isolated limbs, with a typical shot framing Kyle’s legs from the knees down as he stands at the edge of the room in conversation with some unseen force. The kids’ whispered dialogue is similarly disembodied, with hard-coded subtitles lending a sense of supernatural danger to even the simplest lines (not that “Skinamarink” has any other kind). “We should be quiet,” Kaylee gurgles after seeing a chair on the ceiling, the calm in her voice reflecting the matter-of-fact mix of fear and “maybe this is just how things are?” confusion that children feel every time their parents do something they don’t understand.

With Kyle and Kaylee off-screen for so much of the film (much of it framed at the height of a pillow shot), it’s only a matter of time before the camera seems to adopt the children’s POV and the haunted corners of their parents’ house start to feel like genre-inflected evocations of what we all once expected to find in the dark. Sure there’s a tiny smidgeon of lore here, in addition to some late-game imagery that would do the Blair Witch — and/or Panos Cosmatos — proud, but “Skinamarink” is ultimately less effective as a grounded horror movie about kids confronting an unseen supernatural force than it is as a supernatural horror movie about kids confronting the real world as only they can. It’s the opposite of “elevated horror,” whatever that means; it’s two feet above the carpet and deathly allergic to metaphor. It’s a “Backrooms” twist on being 4 years old, sensing that something is terribly wrong, and trying to convince yourself that you’re still safe under the sheets in the soft light of the TV glow. It’s a feeling that some houses never let you escape.

Grade: B​

IFC Midnight will release “Skinamarink” in theaters on Friday, January 13. It will be available to stream on Shudder on February 2.