Enjoying Dread

I recently watched a horror film that I’d heard about after it set the internet ablaze. As with any horror that generates a considerable internet buzz, headlines and bylines were calling it “the scariest movie ever made” (cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that). This movie kept people up at night for days after viewing it, made them scared of their own homes, and there were many who didn’t even stomach sitting through its entire runtime in theaters. Some folks referred to the film as “cursed” and urged others to avoid it. 

All this on a film budget of just $15,000?! Color me skeptical, at best.

Skinamarink is one of the most unique horror experiences I’ve ever had. 

It is a humble, truly bare-bones film that so expertly assembles and subverts visual storytelling techniques and conventions that you often don’t really understand what’s happening in front of your eyes, but you can FEEL how dreadful and disturbing it is.

The film follows four and six year-olds Kevin and Kaylee and takes place in 1995 in a suburban house that looks like it was built in 70s. There is an immediate nostalgic pang for viewers who were of that age in that year (myself included). The setting is familiar - we’ve all been in a house like that in our childhood, be it our own or a friend’s we’ve slept over in. But due to the nature of how the film is shot, the house simultaneously feels foreign and unknown.

The film is shot almost exclusively in locked off perspectives of hallways, ceilings, walls, doorways, and combinations thereof. Every shot gives you a sense of the layout of the house, but almost always is completely obscured by shadow and homely lighting that creates abstract perspectives out of what are otherwise mundane, suburban living-space features. 

The only motion shots we get in the film are from the perspective of Kevin and Kaylee. But these shots are some of the most dread-inducing of my recent memory, because Kevin and Kaylee one day find their parents are gone. Doors and windows that lead in and out of the house begin to disappear, as do the lights in the hallways and rooms. We now can only traverse the house to look for the parents from the children’s low-to-the-ground perspective in complete darkness, with the only source of light (and seemingly safety) coming from the television in the living room playing jovial, if slightly unsettling public domain cartoons.

Oh! And there’s an unknown voice that occasionally beckons from the shadows, giving the children commands. The dialogue in the film is so sparse and intentional that every time someone (or thing) speaks, it tickles your spine.

I won’t spoil more of the film because I believe it truly is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible, but it helps to have a vague sense of what you're getting into, due to how experimental the style is. 

It is a film that perfectly captures the feeling of waking up in your home as a child and being scared of the shadow in the corner of your bedroom. 

Or when you want to go get your parents in the middle of the night, and when you enter the dark hallway, you can’t see the end of it, and something about the void consuming that familiar pathway leaves you motionless. You think you see something in the shadows. You know nothing is there. But you can FEEL something there.

This film is 1 hour and 40 minutes of that feeling. 

I’ve not had an endorphin rush quite like I did during and after watching this film. The tension throughout its run time only dissolves maybe two or three times. You are forced to sit with a tremendous amount of primal discomfort with this film, and the release at its conclusion is substantial and oh-so satisfying. I genuinely felt high on fear.

Some similar feelings of adrenaline and subsequent euphoria I’ve experienced in the recent past come primarily from video games. Video game horror is often unique from film horror because rather than being on rails and following a camera track, you often are the one who is in control and must engage with the scary things around you voluntarily (and sometimes not, haha). 

I recall in Resident Evil Village a particular sequence in the game’s third major section where you go into a house shrouded in mist. It’s eerily quiet inside, seems very lived in, but no one is around. You make your way downstairs and experience very subtly escalating disturbing events until one of the most heart-lurching reveals of the game happens and sends you scrambling down a hallway in the darkness. You don’t really process the escalating tension as it’s happening because of how subtle each increasing moment is, but you FEEL it. The big payoff of the reveal was so huge that I had to pause the game for a moment to catch my breath - I didn’t realize I had been clenching my body and breath for so long. From that point on, I was terrified to turn each corner or to look through an open doorway. But to progress the game, I had to.

I very much recommend a viewing of Skinamarink if you like horror, especially if you are a fan of more art housey, experimental film. And if you want that extra-immersive experience of video game horror, here are a few recommendations in the catalog:

Resident Evil
RE Village is my favorite triple A horror experience in a very long time. In addition to the sequence I described above, there are many examples of excellent world-building, enemy design, and situations where you really don't want to keep moving forward, but you have to. Can't recommend this one enough.

Resident Evil VII
If small casts and rustic environments are more your jam, RE7 is an excellent precursor to Village, trading the misty, Transylvania-esque mountains and castle for a putrid swamp in Louisiana. This game emphasizes more claustrophobic environments over its sequel, and if you have a specific disgust of bugs and creepy-crawlies...be warned. 

Taking place in the universe of the famous film franchise, Alien Isolation is laden with anxiety-inducing sound design, environments, and situations as you attempt to run (mostly hide, let's be honest) from the iconic Xenomorph aboard your ship. Upon its release, the game was touted for its enemy artificial intelligence that adapts to your play style and finds new ways to track you down and give you unexpected scare after unexpected scare. "I'm too scared to move" is a common thought while playing this game. 

Little Nightmares
Little Nightmares bolsters a gorgeous visual design and aesthetic. While seemingly more cartoonish than other entries before this, make no mistake: this game is filled with dreadful encounters with unique creatures that make the entire game feel like a hellish game of hide and go seek out of a Tim Burton fever dream. And if you like it, a sequel recently came out!

The Last of Us
This game needs no introduction, especially now that it is riding yet another wave of popularity due to the wildly successful screen adaptation on HBO. The Last of Us is touted as one of, if not the singular best game of the 2010's. The horror and dread of this game comes in many forms, from inter-personal human relationships, the crumbling of society, and of course plenty of hair-raising, breath-holding encounters with the infected humans that roam the land. You get a little bit of everything in this one, plus a heart-wrenching storyline. 

-Joel Bonner is a SOUND+VISION Studio Specialist at Lawrence Public Library.