Put the Knife in your Eye: The Corrupted Habitat of Skinamarink

I have a certain amount of misplaced nostalgia for a specific moment of childhood sickness. Time has since blurred the details, eliding the tangible discomfort and pain in favour of a vague imprint of being young and vulnerable but comforted by the safety of being at home, with my parents taking good care of me. It has remained, to me, as a kind of platonic ideal of “being sick.” It meant eating only soft food so as not to irritate my throat; it was the only time my mum ever allowed Wonder Bread in the house. It meant getting to stay home from school, laid up in bed, half-sleeping and half-watching the 60s Spider-Man cartoon for hours on end. Most importantly, it meant enrobing myself in as many blankets as I could bare to combat the chills. When I fell asleep that night, in my parents’ bedroom, proportionally enormous to me at the time, I had a vivid, major sleep paralysis nightmare. As I lay in bed with a single light on, this space that was once so familiar to me, so comforting and nurturing, where the basis for my entire identity and my habits were formed, slowly warped in front of me. I could feel my perspective begin to shift, and suddenly the corners of the room grew taller around me. It was as though I was shrinking, looking at the world through a nauseating reverse fish-eye lens, the panorama of my subjective visual faculties surrounding me rather than bubbling outward. I tried to reach out and grasp onto something, anything. But as I did, everything became larger and more distant. I distinctly remember hearing a high-pitched static oscillate between sonic extremes as I shrank smaller and smaller. It felt like I was disappearing. As though I was being sucked into the fire of hell below me, stranded in the liminality between dimensions, forced to witness my personal habitat devour me, slowly, and painfully. 

This was not the first and far from the last time that I had this experience. Ever since, if I found myself overheating in my sleep, I would have these distorted visions. For some reason, this one instance has remained as a strong visual and experiential memory; there was something mystical and cosmic about this moment for me. In addition to instilling with me a primordial and deeply true sense of horror, it felt like witnessing the reality behind reality. My conception of the mechanics of space and time fell apart before me, and I was helpless to do anything about it. 

There is a particular moment in Kyle Edward Ball’s horror film Skinamarink (2022), hidden amongst a galaxy’s worth of moments more terrifying and stomach turning, that articulated this feeling better than I have ever seen in a film. Skinamarink decisively prioritizes a sense of atmosphere and mood over narrative clarity, and both the film’s aesthetic and diegesis struggle to be wholly described in writing. The film takes place entirely within a single house and sees siblings Kevin and Kaylee fall victim to an unseen presence that causes their parents, along with the windows and doorways of their home, to vanish. Nearing the climax of the film, wherein the droning sense of impending doom of the preceding hour is officially usurped by the inexplicable and nightmarish, the ostensible four-year-old “protagonist” (for lack of a better word) Kevin has found himself alone, stuck on the ceiling, his house inverted spatially. As he attempts to navigate the upside-down doorways which now impede his movement, his flashlight, penetrating the darkness, becomes fixed on one of these doorways. The incredibly grainy image isolates this familiar icon of domestic architecture as the camera is ever so gently moved backwards, away into further darkness, shrinking the doorway in the frame. The world around the doorway begins to disappear, enveloping the viewer in the darkness in a single camera move. It is the final shot before we are launched into the outright hellish – after a moment in pure darkness, a title card reads “572 Days,” and a mass of toys and furniture pile upside-down into a heap on the ceiling, as the camera dissolves backwards, beyond any point of spatial reality and into a sheer nightmare space.

It should be obvious at this point why this moment impacted me so much. It was seeing my own nightmare manifest before me: a perfect articulation of the horror of seeing the familiar transform before you into something threatening and malevolent (even the sound design is accurate to my nightmare!). While Skinamarink clearly has a narrative, it is oblique and indirect. Characters’ faces are never seen, their dialogue muttered inaudibly from just out of sight as subtitles attempt to fill in the blanks. All that is explicitly detailed is that, at the onset of the narrative, Kevin sleepwalks out of his room, falls down the stairs and hits his head. His father can be heard reassuring someone over the phone that he’s fine. From that point, the nightmare begins. The entire film is rendered in a series of prolonged grainy images of dimly lit doorways and the intersection points between walls illuminated only by the faint glow of a CRT television. Static noise and the buzzing sounds of old cartoons fill the silence, but only briefly. Eventually, a warbled, dark voice appears, directing the children to “look under the bed,” and, more menacingly “put the knife in your eye.” The calm, protective voice of their father is eventually replaced with these corrupted, sinister directives. Eventually, the architecture of the house collapses on itself, supposedly suspending Kevin in this nightmare version of his house for the aforementioned “572 Days” and beyond. Skinamarink doesn’t contextualize this malevolence in a mainstream sense – there is no hinting at a Judeo-Christian hell or demons, neither cultists nor voodoo. There are no ghosts, monsters, or serial killers. To be clear, that’s not to suggest that any of these things are “lesser” than what Skinamarink presents,; but only to signal that Skinamarink’s unique formal qualities are the source of the horror and not a stylistic representation of that source. The house, the structure itself, is the evil. There is no “reveal” by the end of the film of what the true horror is, even one as obscure and dumbfounding as that iconic final push-in on the photograph in The Shining (1980). The corruption of a familiar habitat is enough, and Skinamarink’s horror of implication and elision is all the more bone chilling and upsetting for it. 

I am hardly the first person to observe that Skinamarink operates in a filmmaking form adjacent to, if not a direct ancestor of, structural filmmaking. Ball goes so far as to cite Michael Snow’s seminal Wavelength (1967) as an influence in an interview with Fangoria magazine. Structural filmmaking, a generic sub-practice within the larger, nebulous generic umbrella of “experimental” filmmaking. To briefly bastardize avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney’s definition – structural filmmaking was conceived as an evolutionary contrast to the increasingly complex mythopoeic and lyrical filmmaking modes. It is filmmaking in “which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film” (348). In other words: a film designed according to its structure, first and foremost. Examples include films like Snow’s Wavelength, which sees a 45-minute zoom-in of a studio apartment collapse upon itself with rephotographic effects, or Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970), which sees a cutting rhythm develop as two different focal lengths of a static shot of a university hallway begin to synchronize across each other’s zooms. Wavelength and Serene Velocity were revelatory to me when I first saw them. They articulate a particular unconscious logic, created at large through the “sheer dint of waiting,” which causes “the persistent viewer [to] alter his experience before the sameness of the cinematic image” (Sitney, 351). They are also eerie and compelling as a result, both depictions of a space as a kind of living entity, themselves victims of time. The art of the structural film, as Sitney describes it, is partially in answering the question of “how to orchestrate duration; how to permit the wandering attention that triggered ontological awareness […] and at the same time guide that awareness to a goal” (352).  

The goal of Skinamarink is, quite plainly, horror. Structurally, the film is built entirely upon long shots of inaction, the viewer force to stare intently at the grain of the image, hoping to make out some kind of subject in the darkness. This is what the actual “action” of watching Skinamarink amounts to for the majority of its runtime. Seeing screenshots side by side doesn’t do justice to the real-time effect that, for example, watching Kaylee disappear over the course of several minutes has. The static noise that makes up the majority of the frame eats away at her and focusing on her deteriorating body tricks your brain into believing she is still there, or, inversely, that she is lesser than she is already. You start to doubt your visual impulses, your ability to discern what is visible and what is not. As a result, everything becomes potentially horrifying. Only by looking at other parts of the frame, the ones that are relatively “still” in comparison (nothing is truly “still” in this movie), do you begin to perceive the reality of what is going on. The visual effect of disappearance, or of dissolving away through static, is all a distinctly optical illusion. I found my own eyes re-creating the descending scanlines of the CRT television whenever the screen would become blank, and I would watch as the brighter half of the screen eventually descended to the bottom. Skinamarink’s structural form, built around stasis, is totally in line with Sitney’s description of Snow and Gehr’s filmmaking – “the camera is fixed in a mystical contemplation of a portion of space” (350). 

Skinamarink is all about that mystical contemplation of a space – it is very explicitly about domestic, yet fantastical horror, using a cozy, nostalgic 90s-coded suburban house as its spatial subject for a permeating evil. The prolonged shots of different corners of the house imbue ordinary domestic markers with a sense of ominous magic. That paradoxical affection for the horror of my nightmare is reflected in the affection Skinamarink has for its own markers of domesticity, homeliness, and comfort – toys strewn about on carpeted floors, wood-panelled walls, and frosted wheat cereal crumbs embedding themselves into the threads of a blanket. All of these are eventually corroded and literally flipped upside down by the nightmare structure of the film. The sanctity and security of a habitat is not only threatened, but directly attacked by a paradoxically permanent liminality; kids are trapped indefinitely in their habitats, unable to escape or alter their surroundings, victims not only of the malevolent darkness that surrounds them, but also their own naivety and inability to comprehend what lies before them. 

It is one of the most viscerally scary movies I have ever seen, directly as a result of its ancestry in structural filmmaking. But it might be worth pointing out the ways that Skinamarink does not fit neatly into the structural filmmaking categorization. Sitney cites Andy Warhol historian Stephen Koch, writing that structural film “locates the world of art’s richness not in Baudelaire’s “Else-where” but in the here and now. At least almost” (349). I think that last part – “at least almost” – is incredibly important. I’ve seen detractors dismiss Ball’s citations of Akerman, Brakhage, and especially Snow as pandering to an arthouse crowd, pointing to his YouTube channel’s aesthetic mix-tapes – Nostalgic Sci-Fi Radio while Ghost watches you fall asleep – 3 Hour Mix, for example – as grounds to dismiss him as a formalist (meanwhile citations of Lynch and Kubrick are accepted as the norm). While Skinamarink narrativizes the innate horror of the structural film, I also think it would be wrong to imply that a film like Wavelength does not also include these narrative “Else-where” kernels. Wavelength features three characters, a break-in, a death – they listen to The Beatles at one point. To depict Wavelength as occurring in “the here and now” would not be entirely true either. There is still the implication of narrative, as is inevitable from any form of photographic art. As Sitney specifies, “the insight that space, and cinema by implication, is potential is an axiom of the structural film” (352). While I believe that Skinamarink is a film fascinated with the potential of its own space – and this is precisely what is so invigorating about it – it certainly could be argued that the film takes place in an “Else-where,” divergent from reality, and thus could not be considered a true structural film.

But I don’t think it really is an “Else-where.” I’ve seen that place myself. It is a strange place. A place that forces your memory to become a burden – you are trapped by the implicit comfort that your habitat generates. Was it always like this and I just never noticed? The very notion of past and future – the concept of a linear flow of time is disrupted by the mystical structure of the nightmare. Your habitat is gone. There is only now. There is only this house, that wall, our television. And it is infinite. Skinamarink forever. 

Works Cited

Serene Velocity. Directed by Ernie Gehr, 1970. 

The Shining. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980. 

Sidney, P. Adams. “12. Structural Film,” Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, New York, 1979, pp. 347-370. 

Skinamarink. Directed by Kyle Edward Ball, performances by Lucas Paul, Dali Rose Tetreault, Ross Paul, and Jaime Hill, ERO Picture Company, 2022. 

Wavelength. Directed by Michael Snow, performances by Hollis Frampton, Amy Taubin, Lyne Grossman, and Naoto Nakazawa, 1967.

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