Skinamarink is a Childhood Nightmare Shot on VHS

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Early contender for the strangest and most fun internet explosion curio in film circles of the year, Skinamarink (2022) is an atmospheric, extremely lo-fi creepypasta horror seemingly born out of a haunted VHS tape. This may be the hardest film to have a blanket recommendation for due to its upsetting atmosphere centred around young children, durational cinema tendencies, and an active refusal to follow cinematic conventions that will annoy many audiences. It may be easier to recommend Skinamarink to lovers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Chantal Ackerman films than horror fanatics looking for a low-budget thrill, a place I sit on both ends of.

The filmmaker, Kyle Edward Ball, has been making horror short films for years based on user-submitted stories about their nightmares on YouTube. There is a simplistic effectiveness to many of these videos, with a certain aesthetic formed that grew into Ball’s debut feature, Skinamarink.

Set one night in a family home, Skinamarink follows two young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who have seemingly been abandoned one night as their father disappears without a sound. This childhood nightmare of abandonment is immediately heightened as the doors and windows to their home also begin to disappear, and there is a distorted voice seemingly coming from upstairs beckoning them.

The effectiveness of the film’s horror is its depiction of a universal childhood fear shown from an actual child’s perspective. Ball is tapping into primordial fears that dwell within all of us, using the constraints of his very modest budget to heighten the atmosphere of dread across its extended run time. The film is certainly too long for its narrow scope coming in at 100 minutes, but when Skinamarink is working, it is one of the most effective horror experiences in years.

Kevin (Lucas Paul) in Skinamarink. Photo Credit: Shudder

What has allowed Skinamarink to explode as a curio of indie horror cinema (including several in-demand screenings at The Astor Theatre and Palace Cinemas) is its experiential, durational cinema-styled horror that has a clear lineage in the genre, whilst feeling entirely new. Think Paranormal Activity (2007) but with actual aesthetic choices and storytelling ideas. Those films had some good scares scattered throughout the franchise, but the flat filmmaking in the name of realism makes them a chore to get through. The mixture of base human fears with an individual cinematic style that heightens digital noise and extremely low lighting, allows Skinamarink to feel familiar yet new, creating a deceptively compelling horror.

Its weaponisation of digital distortion is pretty special while still feeling familiar, turning one of indie cinema’s biggest issues (access to only cheap equipment), into its greatest strength. At its strongest moments, Skinamarink will have you questioning your own eyes, not sure if you’re seeing something that is not there or if Ball is manipulating everything on screen. Establishing an off-kilter immersion from the outset allows you to never be sure of that answer, drawing you further into each scene and the encroaching feeling of dread.

Ball gives us just enough narrative to get a sense of the family dynamic here before this fateful night. In a film centred around parental control, beginning with the four-year-old child Kevin apparently falling down the stairs (an act, like many in the film, we do not see but only hear) sets an early tone and has us questioning the children’s parents. The oldest child, six-year-old Kaylee, not wanting to speak to the mother further layers the themes of domestic issues and how they play a role in our childhood fears. In a regular horror film, a disembodied voice beckoning you to “come upstairs” would regularly have you questioning why our young protagonist would do such a thing, but here, we have an understanding about the likelihood this situation isn’t too far removed from their previous experience.

Photo Credit: Shudder

Its central set piece, which involves Kaylee going upstairs into her parent’s room, is one of the most haunting film sequences in years. After 40 minutes of atmospheric buildup, completely unsure of where we are being led, you will be wishing to return to watching cartoons downstairs and staring at Legos. The extended long take in this scene ratchets up the tension to a boiling point, with your palms a sweating mess in a sequence that seemingly goes for eternity. This is no doubt the peak of the film, with only smaller moments in the proceeding hour that match its tension and atmosphere. Structurally, Skinamarink could’ve taken some notes from its predecessors Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project (1999), by peaking in its final moments, but the atmosphere is definitely more of the Ball’s focus than the bigger scares the film has. Unfortunately, this makes the film drag in its second half, even for a great lover of durational cinema as I am.

A film sure to annoy and entice in equal measure, Skinamarink is a curious and mostly effective piece of atmospheric horror filmmaking from an interesting internet-focused filmmaker that is able to use his constraints to his advantage. Whilst not of the same quality as The Blair Witch Project, or the level of engagement culturally so far, Skinamarink is a more interesting and worthwhile horror experience than almost any found footage-style films in the genre.

Skinamarink is on Shudder now.

Babylon Is A Frenetic Fable on Silent-Era Hollywood

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The only story more common in Hollywood than a film about filmmaking is an award-winning director cashing in a blank check to make a dream project they may never get the chance to do again. Babylon (2022), the new film by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, is an all-in movie for a filmmaker who knows the opportunity to make a big-budget, silent-era Hollywood romp with A-list stars will not come around again. We should be grateful the prodigious filmmaker chose to use seemingly every ounce of industry capital he had to get this oddball movie made, as even if the film isn’t great, there are enough transcendent moments, particularly early on, that makes it a ride worth taking. 

Inside this whirlwind of frenetic Hollywood excess is a group of artists striving for their place in the moviemaking circus as it begins to transition from the silent era into the talkies. These include the star-to-be Nellie LaRoy (pitched to eleven Margot Robbie); a hustling upstart looking for his place in the movies and true heart of the film, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva); and ageing star with a waning grip on the top, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt); including a suite of other terrific performers in this frenetic tragicomedy that you won’t soon forget.

Calva is wonderful in the film and a true revelation, but the standouts for the film are Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo, who play singer and artist Lady Fay Zhu and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer respectively. Both characters are great in limited time, but even in a film of this width, their stories are sidelined too easily. There are essentially four films worth of story in Babylon, from Manny and Nellie’s rise, to Palmer’s rise in the industry that does not value him, to Lady Fay’s weaving through a constantly changing industry without the recognition she deserves, to finally Jack Conrad’s slow decline from the heights of stardom into irrelevancy. All these dense stories deserve more time than they are given, sidelined in favour of ambitious dalliances into the debauchery of the industry Chazelle seems so persistent to explore.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu and Jovan Adepo (back right) plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Surprisingly, given the long runtime, Babylon is stretched thin by its wide array of storylines. Jack’s story rarely interweaves with Nelly and Manuel’s, making them feel isolated. Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) work emotionally as two-handers between the leads, whilst here the key characters are oftentimes isolated from each other, striving for their own ambitious goals alone in a chaotic world. This is clearly by design, as Jack’s declining trajectory works alongside his divergence from the young upstarts who are looking to take over the budding talkies boom, but the film ultimately falters because of it.

Where Babylon never falters is in the deliriously bombastic score from Justin Hurwitz, which will no doubt pick him up another Oscar. This may be his crowning achievement as a film composer as Chazelle allows him room to dominate. Full of bombastic horns and drums that propel us into each scene with boundless energy, Hurwitz is the shining light in an uneven film with easily the year’s best score.

A surprisingly dark film visually, with Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opting for a more natural use of lighting which heightens the dynamic contrast between the debaucherous night sequences and the bright daylight where the work gets done. This is most effective through the opening two sequences from the coke-fuelled bacchanalia prologue into the extended scene of manic moviemaking. It is clear this is where Chazelle finds himself most comfortable and where Babylon truly shines. Watching Manuel organise a mass of skid row extras for Jack’s war film or Nellie’s first day on set is electric, set to Hurwitz’s bombastic score, all within the ticking clock structure of the single day shoot, is one of the best sequences of the year. While I am always in favour of directors taking big ambitious swings when given the opportunity, there is a tinge of sadness that Chazelle moves away from these high points later in the film. 

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Chazelle has always been a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve, which has been felt in the past, with Whiplash and of course La La Land, like a prodigious young filmmaker attempting to brush shoulders with both modern and canonical directors simultaneously. Here, the Oscar-winning director is working to rewrite the legendary Singin in the Rain (1952) as a tragicomedy structured somewhere between Scorsese classics Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s braggadocio Hollywood epic Boogie Nights (1997). This is a lofty goal that is certainly appreciated, even if it doesn’t hit the mark consistently.

By wielding PTA as a key inspirational pole instead of the Boogie Nights director’s idol Robert Altman, Chazelle is playing a game of telephone with this style of film, ending up with a story with smoothed-over edges. Scenes of freneticism are shown cleanly, never feeling dangerous to the audience or its key players. Nellie and Manuel glide through manic scenes as smoothly as Sandgren’s graceful camera, creating a certain inevitability to their landing point that while interesting as a decision, ultimately flattens most defining sequences.

There are thematic depths to mine in Babylon, but they feel oftentimes short-changed in favour of larger set pieces. Manuel’s narrative of assimilation and identity is compelling and the most consistent thread being pulled throughout this 188-minute cinematic feast. We follow this immigrant story of a man who must essentially remove his nationality in pursuit of his ambitions within a rigid Hollywood system. Total annihilation of personhood for your art is something that clearly compels Chazelle as it is a key driver for his characters across his filmography, but it is here with Manuel that these themes truly land. We see him transform throughout the film, shifting into whiter clothing, changing his name to Manny more diligently, and even telling producers that he is Spanish, all in the hope that it gets him closer to his goal.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

What separates PTA’s writing from Chazelle’s is ultimately what is lacking in a garish epic like Babylon: romanticism towards its characters. This does not mean fawning over them but treating them with respect and humanity that allows us to connect with them. Chazelle too often uses his characters as vessels for obsession and ambition in a primordial sense, making them kinetic and engaging, but rarely emotionally involving. The most personal moment of the whole film is wedged between its two great opening set pieces, as we see the modest living arrangements of Nellie and Lady Fay after seeing them command the attention of the lavish Hollywood party through their powerful charisma.

Chazelle has made a career of crafting sequences with wide dynamics, thrilling highs hard cut into crushing lows that usually work wonders like in Whiplash and La La Land. Unfortunately, adding to its issues with being stretched thin, these dynamics end up compressing the emotionality into dust.

The anguish-laden death march that consumes much of the second half sucks all air and exhilaration from the theatre, so the film is unable to coast off his own momentum as it languishes to its finale. This total fever dream opening into a death spiral has been done to great effect before (Boogie Nights and Goodfellas), but in Babylon the work on characters is less involved on a human level so the feeling is widely cheapened.

Ultimately, Babylon feels like a terrarium of meticulous detail about a revered moment in Hollywood history, with the edges sanded down to create a smooth glass dome. Even its finale, which is attempting a Godard-esque swing for the fences, feels strained. Authenticity was not the predominant goal of the film (this is not 2009’s The Artist but with coke), but somewhere along the way, the heart of the film was sidelined in terms of gawking ambitious set pieces. There are incredible sequences here that will be burned into my retinas to the tune of blaring trumpets, but you may not feel anything at the end.

Babylon is in select theatres now.