One of the pleasures and indeed responsibilities of movie reviewing is remembering the lesson of a Hans Christian Andersen folk tale.
Some folks review films based on their hype, the “director’s statement” of what it’s about, or a careful consideration of the releasing studio’s press release about it. But some of us approach the film fairly blind and review exactly what’s on the screen and our interpretation. We take notes to buttress our arguments with direct observations and facts.
And sometimes, it’s our job and our pleasure to point out “The Emperor has no clothes.”
“Skinamarink” is a horror tale that arrives with web-stoked notoriety, a no-budget Canadian indie that who knows how many folks saw when it leaked online and was uploaded to Youtube, its opaque images and meaning parsed by the teeming fangirl/fanboy masses before critics in numbers started weighing in on it.
It is a patience-testing, minimalist and “immersive” film, withholding information, withholding characters’ faces, withholding clarity and withholding light itself. It’s 100 minutes of grainy, pre-digital VHS tape quality footage of toys, ceilings, wall outlets and paneling, of children seen from behind or from the knees down, distracting themselves with (public domain) ancient VHS copies of 1930s cartoons.
Why are the kids “distracting” themselves? The two siblings, Kevin and Kaylee, wonder what’s going on in their house. They hear muffled noises, and eventually voices. Their darkness is pierced by a nightlight here and there, or the family’s big old cathode ray tube (non-HDTV) screen when they turn it on.
Many minutes pass before anyone deigns to switch on a light, even briefly. The third act is largely flashlight-lit, even though the glow of that “Poltergeist” Panasonic TV remains.
Over an hour passes before pieces of what the kids can’t quite assemble into “what’s going on” with their house becomes less opaque. Doors and windows, only seen in the corner of the frame as the camera is always angled to hide a fuller picture, are disappearing.
Toys are here one second, and vanish the next. Some of them turn up on the various textured ceilings the first-time writer-director Kyle Edward Ball is obsessed with. A child seeing a chair on the ceiling should produce something like a freak out. It does not.
“Faces,” what few we barely glimpse, are reserved for the third act.
Is this a nightmare, or the never-ending nightmare of “hell?” At one point, the title graphic “572 Days” pops up on the screen. Maybe it IS Hell, and “Skinamarink” is the only movie streaming there.
The standard horror shocks and jolts are rare. A lot of screen time is devoted to VHS-tape darkness, which is grey at best.
“Skinamarink” is ugly to watch, annoyingly repetitive and tedious to sit through, with eye strain a very real consequence of watching grimy, grainy, chronically-and-intentionally-underlit VHS quality images.
The sound is so muffled and muted it plays like an old cassette deck that needs the metallic oxide cleaned off its playback heads. A child is ordered to do something in a whisper, muffled screams follow.
But I don’t consider it “immersive” to feed the viewer sound so garbled it has to be subtitled. If this is a nightmare of hell, it’s worth asking, “Do your nightmares have subtitles? Does Hell?”
The title? Meaningless. As Ball puts most of the credits at the opening of the film, he tells us he relied on audio and video content “in the public domain,” which also applies to the word “Skinamarink.”
Genre fans are no doubt properly hyped to see this and the easy way out of reviewing it is to say, “I didn’t get a thing out of it, but have at it. Enjoy.” I saw it in a suburban Florida cineplex in which one third of the audience walked out at the 30 minute mark, and most of the rest left after an hour.
It’s borderline abusive in the way it wastes screen time and the viewer’s time.
To me, it was the quietly suspenseful “dull” parts of “Blair Witch” and “Paranormal Activity,” a gimmicky experiment with a little of the suspense and precious few frights or tactile terrors to hang those frights upon. I was also reminded of Derek Jarman’s late-career “experimental” film “Blue,” in which the filmmaker, dying of AIDS and having lost much of his sight, presents a limited-character radio play of what he’s living through with a blue screen his only image.
The glib way of reviewing “Skinamarink” would be to post Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning animated short “The Critic” here, and let Mel do the dirty work.
Heaven knows that video judgement works for many an “experimental” film that one encounters at film festivals, which is how IFC Midnight found this one.
But let’s not back away from regarding the “new clothes” here, even if a one-word review would have done wonders for the legions walking out of it.
Rating: unrated, implied violence
Cast: Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault as the kids, Jaime Hill and Ross Paul as the parents.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kyle Edward Ball.
Running time: 1:40