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A young boy sits in a dim, blue hallway with his back to the camera, facing a series of open doorways, in a typically grainy, fuzzy shot from the horror movie Skinamarink Image: Shudder

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The viral sensation Skinamarink is this generation’s Blair Witch Project

It’s innovative, unique — and causing a lot of online arguments

Kyle Edward Ball’s devious, skin-crawling indie horror film Skinamarink is sparse, like the song Ball took its name from. The film, which has become notorious via TikTok and word-of-mouth, was shot entirely inside Ball’s childhood home in Edmonton, Alberta. It only has two discernible characters, who barely feature on screen. Ball fashions his horror, and by extension his “story,” around sensory and atmospheric tricks, using carefully curated camerawork, lighting, sound, and editing. Skinamarink has been met with both praise and skepticism, like so many other great historical horror films — particularly Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 horror game-changer The Blair Witch Project. Ball’s approach to the idea of fear, the meticulous formal movements he uses to generate it, and the polarized audience response all recall Blair Witch as well.

The song “Skidamarink,” also known as “Skinnamarink,” dates back to the 1910 musical The Echo. Its lyrics are mostly nonsense; each short verse ends with “I love you.” About midway through Skinamarink, the two main characters — Kaylee and Kevin, a very young sister-and-brother pair — tell each other “I love you,” signifying that they’re worried about their situation. Left alone in a dark house where the doors and windows have disappeared, they’ve gotten bored of playing with their toys, watching cartoons, and eating cereal. They’re starting to notice the house is becoming darker and darker, and they want their parents to come back. And then a gargled, childlike voice beckons them.

The ambiguity of the film’s terror, which depends much more on sensation than explicitly scary figures or monsters, grabbed some viewers by the throats. Fans say it’s innovative in the way Ball creates a sense of dread from minimalist elements. Non-fans say it’s slow, trudging, and lacking in scares. All of which brings back The Blair Witch Project, which was similarly criticized as “boring” and “not scary” by viewers who bought into the advance hype around the film, then found it wasn’t what they expected from a horror movie.

Some audiences were confused and frustrated by Blair Witch’s cinéma vérité approach, with its improvised dialogue, characterization, and camera movements. It wasn’t the first found-footage horror movie, but it revolutionized the technique in American cinema: The ways the camera shakes, rattles, gets dropped, and purposefully obscures objects suggests that the film wasn’t “directed.”

The approach unnerved audiences so much that the police in Burkittsville, Maryland, where the movie took place, received several phone calls from concerned citizens who thought the Blair Witch videotape was real, and even formed search parties to find the three characters from the movie. The directors use that handheld camera to get viewers’ eyes and minds to play tricks on them. As the images jerk around, shapes and shadows begin to dance. The movie never looks evil in the face, but it’s designed to make people sure they definitely saw something lurking right outside the shot.

In Skinamarink, the camera is mostly still. It dares us to stare into the dark corridors, crevices between furniture, and shadows obscuring staircases. The camera gazes unflinchingly at one repeated dark room or hallway in particular. (It’s hard to tell which — the house’s spatial geometry is purposefully ambiguous.) The approach is designed to make viewers start imagining what might be lying just beyond their sight. We can’t see it, but what if it can see us?

The presence or absence of objects is a large part of the film’s suspense. The camera is often ground-level or tilted up toward the ceiling, keeping characters’ presence and motions ambiguous. When a door creaks, you don’t know who or what is walking through it. When a light turns on, it only reveals more dark voids.

Jamie McRae’s cinematography takes Kyle’s or Kaylee’s vantage point a few times, with the camera stumbling around as they try to find their way through the dark, where voices beckon them. At other times, they’re only seen in portions, as feet hanging off the sofa, illuminated by the brilliant shine of the TV, or the back of a head, as one of them stares into the seemingly endless nothingness through a dark doorway. These conscious decisions make the house’s floors and walls look gargantuan. It perpetually shifts our understanding of how the house is put together. Anything can become a portal. Any door can disappear, then reappear later. Perhaps the house is alive, and it can strike from literally anywhere.

While Skinamarink is presented in a retro analog fashion, with high grain and saturation meant to imitate exploitation cinema of the ’70s and ’80s, the movie’s inspiration and word-of-mouth reception were both internet-born. Ball ran a YouTube channel where he created short films out of viewers’ retellings of their nightmares. He recently told RogerEbert.com that “from the get-go, the internet has been my co-director.” He turned one of those submissions into the horror short Heck, a clear precursor to Skinamarink. After Skinamarink debuted at the 2022 Fantasia Festival, TikTok users began to make their own videos warning viewers about how scary the movie is. A press statement from streaming service Shudder claims that the #Skinamarink hashtag has gotten close to 7 million impressions on TikTok.

Horror and media have always been intertwined in one way or another. Both The Blair Witch Project and Skinamarink gained notoriety by going viral on the internet — in Skinamarink’s case, after the entire movie leaked online. Both films also use technology as a source of horror. But where Blair Witch Project used a digital handheld camera as a cipher for terror, Ball used retro technology. The television in the home, which stays on for nearly the entire movie, is both a source of comfort and malevolence. It’s an old analog TV with a VCR, playing retro public-domain cartoons, including the Looney Tunes short “Prest-O Change-O.”

In a grainy, artifact-packed, blurry shot from The Blair Witch Project, protagonist Mike (Michael Williams) grins and aims his camera outward at the camera filming him Image: Artisan Entertainment

The metaphor that short offers is clear — the house is in constant metamorphosis, and the way random objects and passages disappear represents the fear of the unknown and of loss of control. The TV’s harsh white light, often silhouetting the kids and their toys, starts to repeat sequences from the cartoons. Its audio warps and cycles. A toy telephone rings as if possessed. These simple household occurrences take on a sinister presence in the dark. Anyone who grew up in a suburban home can remember those kinds of household creaks and scratches, which seem far louder late at night than they ever would when the sun was out.

Skinamarink’s production budget was only around $11,000, and Ball takes full advantage of his financial limitations, simplifying the film’s atmospherics and relying on the base elements of cinema. It’s a tour de force of understanding how sound and camera movements on their own, with common objects and within common places, can create staggeringly effective emotive responses. Ball told iHorror, “I would say that in a lot of ways, I’m fairly incompetent, but my big big strength that I’ve always had is atmosphere.”

Horror has always been more open to the imaginative possibilities of cinema than most genres, and it’s often made the most of meager budgets by focusing on mood and aura. For Ball, the limitations on his YouTube channel’s production helped teach him what works in horror, and how to work around not having the budget for actors or effects. “I had to do a lot of tricks as far as implying action, implying presence, POV, to tell a story with no cast,” he told iHorror.

For some people, those limitations and Skinamarink’s unconventional storytelling are failings, just as The Blair Witch Project’s choppy visuals, improvised dialogue, and narrative teasing were failings. But both films are golden examples of the ways horror filmmakers can experiment with mood and sensation, and still find a receptive audience. These movies’ approaches aren’t for everyone, not in a culture that prefers to focus on movies telling the audience things rather than making them feel things.

Either way, Skinamarink undeniably elicits strong reactions. Like Blair Witch Project in 1999, it doesn’t look anything like the other viral hits of its era, and its ability to conjure fear and dread in the simplest ways is a testament to the ingenuity and creativity that horror cinema offers. It remains to be seen whether Skinamarink has anything like the impact The Blair Witch Project had on cinema, in terms of spawning endless copycats and an extensive subgenre of its own. Maybe instead it’ll just stand as a reminder that as long as horror directors keep finding new ways to scare their audiences, they’ll keep pushing the genre further.

Skinamarink debuts in theaters on Jan. 13.

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