For some horror fans, Skinamarink was a bust—a waste of one hour and forty minutes on this beautiful, mysterious earth. The same security guard stood outside the theater both times Michael and I saw it, and he was aghast that we saw it twice. Certainly, some of the theatergoers liked the film, based on post-movie conversations, but others responded with a resounding, “it sucked,” and moved on with their lives. As for me, well, I can’t seem to get that monster out of my mind, to echo the title of a Joan Didion essay (although to be honest, I don’t remember what that essay was about). Indeed, the “monster” in the film is a diabolical force that takes over a family’s household. And it’s a diabolical force that’s incredibly well-conveyed—so much so that I have concluded this is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Given, however, that the whole movie is a sequence of fuzzy camera stills, I’m quite interested in considering why I found it so scary. That is, at least, (part) of what this blog post is about. I haven’t written casually about horror in a while, but my most frequent horror-writing tendency has always been to highlight the main things I have to say about a film (even when they’re disconnected) and discuss them in my blog posts. That is, then, what I will do here. To that end, here are my thoughts on Skinamarink, a landmark horror film that I would situate as a genre-bending classic.
Skinamarink starts by showing us some benign stills of the interior of a family’s presumably suburban home in 1995 (although the homes interior decorations look more vintage, think 70’s or 80’s, giving the film an anachronistic vibe that reminded me of It Follows, which you can read about here, or here). We hear noises without much dialogue, and finally, through sparsely conveyed dialogue and a camera that often pans on two little sets of feet, we learn that two young children, Kaylee and Kevin, are playing a hide-n-seek game. Shortly thereafter, we overhear their father telling someone (probably their mother) over the phone that Kevin fell and hit his head, but that the fall wasn’t too bad and “he didn’t even need stitches.” The action escalates when the kids wake up in the middle of the night and realize doors and windows are disappearing from their home. Their parents appear to be gone as well. From that point the film takes us through a sequence of more creepy stills of the inside of the home, and some subtly depicted but terrifying events ensue. When Kaylee goes upstairs to look for her parents, the diabolical force makes her eyes and mouth disappear. Shortly thereafter, Kevin is asked to put a knife through his eye and is told there will be grave repercussions if he doesn’t listen. The film ends with a creepy, barely visible face peering through the camera, whispering things to Kevin. The suggestion is that the evil force has won.
This is, admittedly, a sparse overview of a film that had myriad intricate terrifying elements. At the same time, I find it challenging to relate a specific, cohesive plot to readers after watching such a subtle film that leaves the viewer with so many questions throughout the story. I hope, then, to delve more deeply into the terror of the film as I discuss its elements in more detail.
The beginning is admittedly mild. The shots, though intentionally grainy and only partially revelatory of the surroundings, are relatively tame shots of a suburban Canadian home (presumably, since the film is Canadian) in 1995. Because the story is told mostly through ambiguous shots and a series of noises, with small smatterings of dialogue that are brief and always close-captioned, there are only a few things that seem evident early on in the film: the house is fairly “ordinary” by most peoples’ standards, it has a single television that appears, virtually, to be on all the time, there appear to be two nameless parents and two kids (Kaylee and Kevin), and frequent shots of their toys, including a repeated focus on their half-torn apart Lego set, seems to reify the implied typicality of the film, if “typical” (as dominant Western culture tends to favor) is a two-parent household with 2-3 kids, a television, and some toys. I remain, however, less interested in how the film might examine the nuclear family (which perhaps it does, but perhaps not) and more how it illustrates notions of “the home” and “childhood.”
It is, after all, the home itself that seems horrific in this film, even though it appears to have been taken over by the demonic. A solid 80% of the shots are slanted, uneven shots featuring the home’s interior architectural details, and I’d have to watch to be sure, but I think the shots get more creepy, more sinister, over time. Of course, the camera work is incredibly intentional, so there is more thought behind the cinematography than just sporadic bits of the home, and one must look carefully, at times, to note what exactly is being focused on and why. But many of the camera shots focus on the edifice itself, from the inside, and the results of this decision are manifold. First, the viewer gets the sense of being trapped in the house the way the children are, even if the camera POV does not always align with the kids’ POV. In fact, sometimes, we might wonder whose POV we’re seeing and why; perhaps it is that of the demonic force, itself, when the camera jumps around to different, odd angles of the house. Regardless, along with feeling trapped, we also feel disoriented and confused. The camera, which never pans, but focuses on a scene, disappears, and then changes to focus on another still scene, shows us strange shots in rapid succession. If Earnest Hemingway said good writing (and, in this case, good directing) is often defined by what is excluded instead of what is included, then what was excluded from this film was highly effective at intensifying the horrific elements of the film.
I find this focus on the home interesting. My parents and I moved into a small house in a suburban neighborhood the day before I was a year old, and while I have not lived there since I got my Master’s degree, they moved out only a few years ago, when I was about 35. I still dream of the home, and the dreams are always pleasant, albeit sometimes dripping with a sense of something lost. The point is, I think, that I never realized how much I regarded the actual edifice my parents lived in as a sanctuary, how emotionally attached to it I am, until they moved out of state and the house that I had known for 35 years belonged to new owners. There was no great tragedy, here; my parents are in great health and basking in the warm North Carolina sun now while I continue to dig myself out of snowbanks in Erie, PA. So it’s not my parents who I miss—not really, although they do live further away—but the actual, architectural house.
In my Master’s program I was really into Space and Place theory, predominantly as espoused by Yi-Fu Tuan, who delineated between space and place and dubbed “place” a word for the location of warmth and familiarity. When talking about the home, of course, this notion is slightly idyllic; the home isn’t a place of warmth and familiarity for everyone, but in cultural discourse home is often constituted as the quintessential example of “place”—a mere edifice that is actually much more than mere edifice, a place imbued with different mini-landmarks and mini-meanings, that give shape to, from the standpoint of memory and nostalgia, a virtual “meaning machine,” to borrow the term that Jack Halberstam uses to describe monsters. Thus, while, on the one hand, the film inverts the culturally discursive notion of the home as “warm, familiar place” and “sanctuary” by situating the home, itself, as an entity of the horrific, at the same time, it explores, and plays off our anxieties, that the home is, in fact, horrific. I would contend that some sort of trauma is embedded in the walls of even the most warm, familiar homes, let alone those that are the opposite (think, Jennie in Forrest Gump when she re-encounters her childhood home and breaks into a rock-throwing rage). What might be more frightening than the realization that Skinamarink inverts prototypical images of home and hearth, then, might be the realization that all of our homes have a bit of the demonic, a bit of evil within the walls, hiding somewhere, and we might be as defenseless as Kaylee and Kevin when it comes out to play.
And Kaylee and Kevin are defenseless, entirely. Though they do not speak much, when they speak, we realize they are but young children. Take, then, the “Babes in the Woods” literature motif/archetype. According to Thomas Foster, a lot of stories, starting with Hansel and Gretel, detail the saga of two young children, often a little boy or little girl, venturing into a forest, losing their way, and stumbling upon a home that looks appealing but is actually sinister inside—the place where the witch will roast you in the oven. But what if you don’t have to wander outside your home, outside the suburbs, and into the woods to find the evil, the malicious, the macabre? Much post-modern horror, after all, is located in the suburbs; you no longer have to go into a forest or climb the mountain to get to Dracula’s castle. The effects of this suburban horror are manifold; first, they invert the notion that the suburbs are a sanctuary and a safe place where harm can’t come to you (an antiquated notion, especially in the wake of tragic mass shootings, that always had racist underpinnings anyway); second, they explore the very real possibility (or reality) that the suburbs are the embodiment of the horrific for some people (see Get Out, for example, where the suburb, and an individual home, become more horrific by the end of the film than we could conceive of at the beginning). All of this suburban horror does what Skinamarink does to “the home,”—it inverts dogmatic notions of “place”—in terms of warmth and safe familiarity—and it highlights the fact that we are now aware that we need not go into the woods to encounter the horrific; we can find it in or around our very own home.
Part of this notion is achieved in Skinamarink, I think, because the implication is that any sort of access to the outside world would be a great relief. If only one of those windows hadn’t disappeared. The film, after all, would hardly be scary if the kids could walk out the door. In what I deem the scariest scene in the movie, after the alleged disappearance of Kaylee and Kevin’s parents, Kaylee tells Kevin she’s going to go upstairs and get something, and she meanders into her parents’ dark bedroom, where two adult figures are there, although we get the sense that Kaylee is uneasy about them. Are her parents there after all, we may ask? Are they complicit in this demonic takeover? My ultimate take on the film, since there is really little evidence that the parents were conjuring the demonic before it overtook the house, is that the demonic entity takes the shape of the parents. But in so doing, much like the “monster mom” of many horror films, the sudden presence of two figures that, presumably, resemble the parents (we get a shot of dad’s legs hanging off the bed in plaid pajama pants, and we see mom from the back) taps into some really primal fears, our anxieties about what happens when the nurturers and caretakers in our lives don’t serve that function at all. We look at the back of the woman’s head, as if we were Kaylee, on a grainy camera in a dark bedroom, and suddenly, in a low, hollow voice, we hear the woman say, “Kaylee, your father and I love you very much.” Of course, this is all the more terrifying because we’re not really encountering the parents, and nobody says “I love you” the way this horrific voice says it. Minutes after this horrifying scene, the entire, huge movie theater screen fills up with a (still somewhat grainy) close up of Kaylee’s eyeless, mouthless face; we later learn the force removed her eyes and mouth for not listening to it. She does not speak again the rest of the film. But it remains relevant here that it’s the parents’ bedroom that is the most horrific element of the film, after the parents’ have disappeared, which is, arguably, a sort of nucleus of the house.
To re-focus our energy on the notion of the horrific edifice, Skinamarink also frequently pans to a set of large Legos; some of them are just laying in a pile, while others are parts of the few structures that appear to have been built at one point. It remains emphatic, here, that while the TV is almost always on (showing cartoons that are at times as horrific as the film), the kids never play with the Legos. Once the demonic force enters the house, “play” is no longer an option, or at least an appealing one, the film seems to suggest. I am thinking of Earnest Hemingway again, for some reason, when he wrote his six word story, “Baby shoes, for sale, never worn.” There is something tragic, haunting, even horrific about a set of baby shoes that have never been worn. The inference of course is that the baby was never born—although one could come to other conclusions, too, I suppose. The notion of toys at rest, toys that, continuously, as the film pans on them, remain untouched, has a similarly interesting effect. “Legos, for sale, never played,” could be the caption. Of course, the Legos have been played with, at some point, but throughout the film, as the demonic takes over, we never see the children actually playing with them. They remain still and abandoned, like the simulacrum of a gutted city after a zombie virus has taken over. Maybe, or maybe…
Maybe like a simulacrum of a house that can be built and destroyed at will. Another possibility that Michael and I discussed was that the Legos were analogies for the house that underscored the sheer force of evil that the children in the film are dealing with. As human beings, we can easily break apart Lego houses, take out the windows, change the space of the door—build Lego houses that don’t have doors, and so forth. Legos are a great kids’ toy because while building a Lego palace may require some degree of skill, simply taking them apart, or changing the shape of a structure made out of Legos, is incredibly easy. Building with Legos, at least on a basic level, is second nature, to most people. Is all of this horror, then, second nature to the evil force that ignited it? Is the house of the family—the house with the disappearing windows and doors—like a Lego house to the entity that’s taken it over? How small and powerless are we, as human beings, at least from one perspective? How easy are we, truly, to fuck with, if someone or some thing really wanted to try to fuck with us? I get the sense, after all, that if two adults were left alone in that house, they would hardly fare better than the kids; when your house has no windows and no doors, what the hell do you do?
Well, you might do one thing in 1995, in a home that doesn’t have a computer. You might make a phone call, with one of those antiquated things called a “land-line.” The demonic entity tells Kevin to stab his own eye, and warns him that when Kaylee disobeyed him, she lost her mouth and eyes. So, Kevin stabs his own eye, and though we don’t see him do it we can imagine it’s a rather bloody affair; we see a still, more than one time, of drippy blood stains on a wall. At this point—and, interestingly, not before this point—Kevin calls 911 (or the Canadian equivalent) and says he needs help, and he’s bleeding. I wondered two things during this call. First, was the seemingly benign voice on the other line really an emergency response unit? If I were a devil taking over a house, after all, would I make all the doors and windows disappear, and then ¾ of the way into my act, think, “oh shit, I forgot about the phone?” No, but I might make the phone’s connection to the outside world disappear, and replace that connection with the voice of an ostensibly caring adult who will sooth the child while I continue to scheme. (Okay, this is getting creepy—for the record, I am not a demonic entity and have no plans for home invasion.) On the other hand, all the phone calls in the world probably won’t help if the house no longer has doors and windows, or if the evil entity punishes Kevin for using the phone the same way he punishes Kaylee for disobeying him. There is an interesting, awkward nexus between the inside and outside world in this film, one that entreats a suspension of disbelief. One gets the sense that the house is a little like an evil version of the Dr. Who Tardis, in that it looks very different on the inside once the doors and windows disappear than it does on the outside. We have to assume, in sum, that the outside world has no idea what’s going on.
And we don’t really, either, because everything I’ve said about the film is inferential, but that’s what I liked about it. Sometimes when we hear the elaborate back story of the evil entity, or a throng of ghosts come dancing out of the walls, nothing is left to the imagination, and the relative fright of a film diminishes. This film left a lot to the imagination, while still providing plenty of terrifying shots. I don’t tend to get scared in horror movies, and when I do, I only get scared during, well, the scary parts. This whole movie is one big scary part, without a break or comic relief, and I was tense the whole time. If a lot of horror rests on this assumption that we’ll be introduced to the ordinary world before we enter the horrific, and then we’ll be ejected from the horrific many times so that we can breath a bit in the ordinary world before the next scare, well, this film provides us with no such privilege. The film concludes with a lumpy, amorphous, disconnected face talking to Kevin, surrounded by a black screen. The face is terrifying, in my opinion, and it’s etched in my mind still, as I write about it.
Strangely enough, I don’t just like Skinamarink. I love it, it’s one of my all time favorite horror movies, and I yearn to see it again. I don’t understand quite why. On a surface level, I really like my life, and this film takes me out of it and to a much worse place for 100 minutes. I don’t know why I should wish to dabble in a demonic household for over and hour and a half and forget about a job I love, a dissertation that mostly invigorates me, my dance practices, the existence of people I care about, and everything that adds up to make my life a life, and one that I enjoy—but I do—I always want little spurts of escape that allow me to sink my sentience into a horror movie. I love to escape life through horror, even when everything is going well, and Skinamarink proved the ultimate escape. For as subtle as the film is, sometimes, when an alarming shot pervades the screen, it feels “in your face,”—you can’t unsee it, and you can’t look away. And the imagination fills in just the right gaps of the film with details and inferences ten times more terrifying than they would be if they were spoken or shone. I’ve gone from analysis to rambling now, so it’s time to stop writing, and a lot of people will disagree with me on this, but I think Skinamarink is a landmark and a classic—a brilliant, haunting film that lets us, like all horror, explore the things that scare us, if only from a safe distance.