Sometimes nothing is more frightening than your own home in the dead of night. This is something that Kyle Edward Ball understands intimately. His new film Skinamarink, which opens January 13 via IFC Midnight/Shudder, follows two small children who wake up in the middle of the night to discover their parents are missing. With all the doors and windows having mysteriously disappeared, the siblings camp out in the living room, using the glow of the TV set to keep them company. While waiting for their parents to return, they realize they're not alone.
A micro-budget masterpiece shot entirely in the filmmaker's own family home, Skinamarink plunges the viewer into its young protagonists' vulnerable, dreamlike perspective. The hallways and bedrooms are shot from low angles, transforming a conventional space into something foreign and disturbing, and familiar children's toys become threatening totems. Shot digitally in low light, everything is ensconced in a grainy static, an atmosphere that makes Skinamarink feel like a cursed object, something you may stumble upon late at night on the internet that you're not supposed to see. It's no wonder the film has become a viral sensation, a nightmare that horror fans dare one another to watch.
FANGORIA talked to Ball about crafting a film that feels straight out of the '70s, his cinema influences, and the state of horror today.
I really wanted to ask you about some of your influences because while watching Skinamarink, the movies that came to mind were more avant-garde, experimental films that are unsettling or creepy but not necessarily horror. For instance, I was really reminded of Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey, which has a lot of strange angles in rooms and long lingering shots.
Chantal Akerman's work definitely influenced it, and other experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and even one-off stuff like the short film Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967). Getting a bit more mainstream, David Lynch was a huge influence on me, Stanley Kubrick, and even little odd parts of cinema. Black Christmas has a lot of shots where there's just panning. I would refer to it when talking with my director of photography, who hadn't seen Black Christmas: "This is my Black Christmas shot." There's one shot towards the end of the movie that's based on the end pull-out shot from Solaris by Tarkovsky.
I saw another interview where you mentioned you really wanted Skinamarink not to be an homage to '70s film; you wanted it to feel of the time period. How did you approach going about that?
I kind of set up building blocks and rules so that it would be difficult to make something that felt more modern. So not a lot of moving shots. The POV shots where we are moving couldn't be on Steadicam. They had to be handheld because I didn't want it to be smooth, but also not too shaky. We didn't use any artificial lighting outside of the pitch-black scenes, or we used a sun gun with a blue light filter, which helped add to it because it gave it a kind of neo-realistic feel. If you love an era of filmmaking and watch a lot of movies from it, it just sort of rubs off on you. And if you make a commitment not to pull back too much, to make it look like a '70s movie, sound like a '70s movie, then it doesn't feel like an homage.
You mentioned the sound, which is particularly effective in this film. It's really telling the entire story. Was the decision to do all the dialogue in ADR more practical, more creative, or a mix of both? It makes everything a lot more unsettling.
It definitely started off as practical, but then it did add an uncanniness as well. Practically, it made working with the child actors easier. It lowered the amount of time we'd have to have people on set and also helped in the editing room. But in the same vein, it does have an otherworldly feel to it because even if I apply the perfect reverb to make it feel like it's in that exact room, it still doesn't feel quite right.
There are also these moments where there's a sparing use of big sounds that's very shocking, and then there are other moments where there's minimal sound, but there are subtitles. How did you decide what to subtitle and what you wanted the viewer to hear vs. read?
The subtitles do originally appear in the script because I wanted to experiment with them. I've seen it quite a bit in analog horror on the internet. I thought it would be neat to play with scenes where we could hear people talking but it was so quiet we could only understand them with subtitles. And then when I got to editing there were certain scenes where, in retrospect, a scene is originally subtitled but the way they said something sounded good so we kept the audio. It was a fun little process.
This film captures the true meaning of uncanniness. It takes a really familiar environment and makes it completely unfamiliar and foreboding. Was filming in your parents' house the plan all along? What was that experience like?
It was the plan all along, and my parents were great in accommodating me and the production. Shooting a movie in the house you grew up in about two characters that are more or less you and your sister, I didn't have to try to make it more personal - it just sort of happened. And then an added benefit was my mom had saved a bunch of childhood toys that we used in the movie, so it got even more personal.
Seeing people's different interpretations of what is happening in the film and what's going on with the kids is interesting. It leaves a lot to the imagination, and there's a lot of room to project your own emotions or memories onto it. Do you have your own ideas of exactly what's going on in the house, and why?
There are many parts of the movie where I have a set idea of what the monster is doing and what's happening to a person, and why. I'm not going to say what those are, but yes, there are some concrete things I have in my mind, and there are other parts where I don't even know the answer. Like the look-under-the-bed scene. I don't know where a lot of that came from.
I may be reading the short film that you did, Heck, into Skinamarink a little bit, but that short has a reveal in it that's very sad. And there's a sense of sadness in this film as well. For instance, the TV being on all the time is a very childlike rationale thing to do, but it also captures this inherent loneliness and confusion involved with being a child. Did you feel you were bringing these other emotional elements into the film?
Absolutely. I think intrinsically, if you do a movie about two little kids, as scary and strange and maybe as harsh as the movie is, there's always going to be heart to that. I think there was more sadness in what I was trying to convey in the original script that, sometimes, I think for certain viewers, completely translates onto screen and other times, disappointingly, doesn't. There's a particular scene with a telephone call that I had written intending to maybe get people to feel really sad, and I think for the most part people haven't quite reacted that way. But I've had a few people message me saying they were in tears during that scene, and I'm glad it worked.
Before we go, I wanted to ask your thoughts on the state of horror, or film in general. It's a really tough time to be a filmmaker, but horror has a long tradition of being the genre where filmmakers could often do a lot with very little and find a hungry audience who want something new and creative. Do you feel the horror film world is in a healthy place right now?
I would say, broadly, in the film industry, there is a ton of difficulty for people to emerge and there's a lot of gatekeeping and there are a lot of roadblocks. I would say it feels like ever since The Babadook we've been in a horror renaissance that feels like it keeps going. I really think horror is the most interesting genre, and you can only count a few times in cinema history when horror wasn't going crazy and reinventing. For the most part, I think horror is always the most interesting genre to work in in movies.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Skinamarink hits theaters January 13, and will also be streaming on Shudder later this year.