In Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, the frame is consumed by a writhing, hungry darkness. It’s the kind that bleeds out from the screen and into the spaces around us, sequestering itself as a vignette around any remaining light, slowly eking inwards. We are perpetually wrongfooted by it, straining our eyes as it moulds around us, twisting, refusing to settle – as normal darkness normally would, helpfully – against the baseboards and corners of the rooms it envelops. It’s alive, and it knows that we’re staring.
Skinamarink’s darkness isn’t simply some swirling ghostly form; some cloak worn by a more obvious danger, the supposed ‘life’ conferred onto this impenetrable gloom exists in the abstract. Any threat hiding within is formless and unpredictable, and it’s only once the initial familiarity of the film’s setting – the home of a young family – begins being slowly violated and morphed that the nightmarish – literally – nature of the film’s world becomes understood.
The basic set-up is this; after goodnights have been said and only nightlights illuminate the home, two young children awaken to find their father has vanished. What would be a resonable cause for concern is compounded by the fact that – impossibly – all windows and doors to the home have disappeared entirely as well, replaced with smooth painted walls, as though they were never there at all.
Skinamarink is Ball’s first feature, a micro-budget independent production preceded by his extensive short film work under the name Bitesized Nightmares, a project which drew inspiration from nightmares as described via forum posts and anonymous submissions to Ball himself. The films play as nightmares would; elliptical, vague, steeped in a kind of horror so personal it feels intrinsic to the film itself, often focussing the source of their discomfort from a single point: the knowledge that there’s a stranger elsewhere in the house, the sound of tearing in the darkness, a low thump emanating from the hall.
In the case of Bitesized Nightmares and Skinamarink alike, Ball harnesses this inherent individuality in service of a kind of warped children’s story, a magical realism taking on the form of horror. Our points of view throughout Skinamarink may well be from the vantage of a mantlepiece or nestled under a couch, but is the perspective of its protagonists; two children, four and six.
We spoke with Ball about going from shorts to features, anonymous collaboration, analog horror and the magical, childlike thinking that sits at the core of Skinamarink.
Nicholas Kennedy: Your previous project Bitesized Nightmares seemed to give away a degree of creative control by sourcing prompts from comments and suggestions online. What appealed to you about that method of filmmaking?
Kyle Edward Ball: I just sort of came up with the idea – but I’m sure others have stumbled upon ‘hey what if I film people’s dreams’ before – but I specifically came up with it as a way to have a little sandbox where I can learn what I’m good at and what I’m not good at as a filmmaker after film school. Another part is, I don’t have to come up with the concept each time, I just have to find a way to recreate it, right? And people don’t even technically come up with their dreams, their subconscious does. So, I don’t have to come up with the idea all the time, I just have to show it.
NK: Do you consider yourself to be someone who doesn’t require a lot of control in the filmmaking process?
KEB: Ironically, it’s exactly the opposite. I’m such a hands-on person. I wrote, directed, edited and sound designed the whole shebang. Also, on top of that I did all the pre-production; shoot schedule, shot listing, set deck… I did the whole thing partially out of necessity but also partially just because I enjoy it.
NK: What was it about the form and aesthetics of a project like Bitesized Nightmares that appealed to you originally?
KEB: I love old movies because they make me feel things that are different. Old movies fit like a glove over new ‘internet horror’ in strange ways, which is why we have analog horror. I leaned more and more towards the lo-fi aesthetic because I was entranced by the idea of doing an old movie today. Even when I was a little kid, I was always jealous of filmmakers of the 60s and 70s because I wanted to do movies like theirs – movies like Night of the Living Dead, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Black Christmas, The Exorcist, even stuff like Roger Corman’s Cinemascope Technicolor stuff, and instead of saying ‘I’m going to replicate this exact movie to a tee’ I just like to draw from all of it and play with it.
NK: What is it about those films that compels you?
KEB: When you see a movie from a different era, it makes you feel things that you don’t feel from a modern movie. Regardless of necessarily the plot or the quality of the movie, there’s something about the grain, the colour, the framing, the zooms; what they focus on and what they don’t focus on, how they use music. All these things that make you feel a certain magic that you don’t feel from a modern movie. Conversely, and I’ve brought this example up a lot, but the movie Everything Everywhere, All At Once – incredibly modern, 4K high definition, beautiful picture – or the movie NOPE; those are incredibly modern movies, and make you feel things that a movie from the 70s can’t necessarily make you feel, and it’s divorced of even what the content is. It’s down to the aesthetics and sounds and sensibilities.
NK: I think the thing that strikes people a lot about Skinamarink is the form. It’s the shape of it. Was it important for you to try and forge your own versions of ‘analog horror’ ideas and symbols, or were you ever worried about playing the same toys in the toy box?
KEB: I was cognisant that I was playing with the same toys and territories that other people had tread upon, and the big thing was, it had been shown so much on the internet before, but no one had really done it in a feature expect for shades of it, so it would always be a framing device in something. An example is Sinister, with those amazing Super 8 movies, or the VHS tape in The Ring, and I thought, why not just do the whole movie like that? Obviously there are tons of found footage movies where it’s all real videotape like the The Blair Witch Project (1999).
NK: Skinamarink is now streaming on Shudder in Australia and getting some screenings here and there; considering analog horror is a genre form that many people have experienced through their computer screens, did that experiential difference – between a cinema screen and a computer screen – ever stand out to you while you were making the film?
A little bit, but not as much as people have pointed out. I think every filmmaker or editor thinks ‘how is this going to read on a laptop vs. a big screen’ but I honestly didn’t make it for either. I just made it in the hopes that it would play on a screen, and hopefully, if anything, people would be watching on their TV or streaming service. It’s been interesting seeing tonnes of people – particularly film critics – who get the screeners and say ‘oh I was just watching this on my laptop and it was terrifying, and then other people comment about watching it in a packed theatre and just the energy of the room, I think a lot of horror lends itself to that. Most of the great horror movies, my favourites, I’ve never seen on a big screen, like The Shining or The Blair Witch Project. When I was little and I watched Blair Witch for the first time it was on this dinky TV and I didn’t like it at all, but it did still stick in my head, and the inspiration about what that movie did still stuck in my head in a lot of ways. I think I was maybe too immature to even process it, but the aesthetics of it also very much stuck with me and the concept of this being a movie where they tried to make it look as real as possible, and they succeeded in that context.
NK: Directors, often times in their early work, can be quite emotionally vulnerable, because they start with what they know best. In your case you literally invited people into your childhood home where you shot the film. How did it feel to turn your childhood home into a place of such danger?
KEB: When I was writing [Skinamarink], I discovered that I didn’t have to try to make it personal. There were so many things where it had no choice but to be personal. Kevin is more or less based on me, Kaylee is more or less based on my sister. The last day was the only day where we filmed in ‘Kevin’s room’, which was my room when I was little, it’s now my mom’s office, and I just had this thing come over me like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this, I can’t believe I’m filming in the room that I grew up in,’ where I dreamed about filming big movies in Hollywood blah blah blah, but I’m filming here, I’m filming in the room where I thought of all these things.
NK: Childhood homes are a bit more complicated in our psyches than I think we all give them credit for, but they’re normally just regarded as a place of nostalgia and safety. How much did the idea of the childhood home come into your writing of Skinamarink?
KEB: It was very important that this is the home that the child just takes for granted. I wanted explicitly for Kevin to be four years old because when I was four my whole life was basically that house. The cynicism of the world hadn’t come into things, and I thought, oh maybe this is what life is like, right? That’s shown in the movie; Kaylee has already been through kindergarten, even though she’s not even two years older than Kevin, she’s so much more aware and mature, but still a little kid. That’s evidenced in some of the conversations they have about their mom and dad, and how she’s more aware of them and their relationship to her and Kevin. She’s a little more cynical and has to explain things to him.
NK: Having a place like that turned upside down feels like one of the most invasive, violating parts of the film.
KEB: And at one point I was like, ‘what if I literally turned it upside down?’
NK: Can you talk a little bit about the magical, childlike thinking that’s present in the film?
KEB: So, in the writing I had the building blocks of ‘Kevin is me, Kaylee is my sister’ and once you set that up you try to think of what my sister and I would do if this happened to us, and then it just flows. We play, we try to calm down because it’s scary and we don’t know what to do. In the beginning of the film when everybody’s gone you can hear Kaylee dial three numbers: 911. That’s because I know at that age we wouldn’t know who else to dial, but you do know that if something bad happens, you dial 911. Once you get into that mindset, everything else falls into place.
Skinamarink is now streaming on Shudder and screening in select cinemas nationally.
Nicholas Kennedy is a Naarm/Melbourne based writer and journalist. You can follow him on Twitter via @nickkennedy.