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.

You Will Be Satisfied By The Menu

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A high-tension, comedic thriller on a bed of murky yet compelling satire, The Menu (2022) blends many styles and influences together with an entertaining wit and snark that is sure to delight audiences. With a strong combination of performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes heightening this loosely structured comedy, The Menu manages to maintain an impressive level of tension and suspense that elevates some of its lacking cultural critiques.

We begin almost in media res as Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) and Margot (Taylor-Joy) wait to board a boat en route to the prestigious and uber-exclusive Michelin three-star restaurant Hawthorn headed by the revered Chef Slowik (Fiennes). By beginning moments before the arrival at the restaurant where the entire film will take place, we are given an active role in sleuthing out details about Tyler and Margot, as well as the other guests and the restaurant. This allows The Menu to be wonderfully engaging, giving the film an almost Agatha Christie-like momentum to the narrative.

Succession director Mark Mylod and writer Will Tracy collaborate with The Onion writer Seth Reiss (Tracy also worked at The Onion for a period) on this uniquely satisfying thriller comedy that blends styles of modern satire, to mostly enjoyable results. Unlike the Palme D’Or winning high-class satire of Triangle of Sadness (2022), the targets of satire in The Menu are not always clear. As the untethering of Chef Slowik’s mind allows an undercutting of his goals to widen the scope of the movie’s satire, Reiss and Tracy take aim more at the culture around the industry through a wider range of archetypes and ideas than cheaply mocking the individuals. This cloudiness may not add depth to its satirical lens, but it certainly adds intrigue through its obscuration. 

Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu

Mylod’s style of heightened realism mixes compellingly with long-time Lynch collaborator Peter Deming’s work as a cinematographer to create a series of tense but compelling images that you will want to savour. Mocking the foodie content that permeates the internet while also executing it to an absurd degree, Deming and Mylod allow the audience to laugh alongside them, while also enjoying the voyeurism of experiencing fine dining from a theatre seat.

Working with three-star Michelin chef Dominique Creen as a consultant, there is an air of realism to this highly arch film that allows the comedic moments to flourish. The best of these moments are handled by the maître d’ Elsa, played by the perfectly cast Hong Chau, who makes an absolute meal out of this script.

Having a compass realignment structure of the courses, formalised in the metronomic Slowik clap, allows the film to bounce around different ideas and set pieces over the night. A series of comedic set pieces set out in an episodic format established by the meal courses, The Menu feels at times like a free-flowing sequence of comedic bits, attached to a lifeline of the structure established by the restaurant. This freedom allows the film to have its cake and eat it too; exploring different characters and comedic moments, while always having the ability to return to the tense thriller story with a powerful clap.

Certain writing decisions feel rebellious, like allowing us access to Chef Slowik’s motives early on, destabilising your expectations of where the night will take you. This creates an almost free-associative middle act that makes each individual moment enjoyable but lacks a certain level of cohesion (a comment literally made on one of the film’s many spinning-food-plate sequences) that leaves a unique taste in the mouth. This complication of knowing whether these decisions improve the film or work to its detriment will make The Menu a fascinating rewatch.

Ralph Fiennes in The Menu

A consistently compelling and interesting script, critiquing a form of art culture in a very similar style to 2019’s Velvet Buzzsaw, without the third-act issues that derailed that film. Where filmmaker Dan Gilroy asked the most from Jake Gyllenhaal in a truly bombastic performance, Mylod has Fiennes working with a sense of reserved enlightenment that allows the film to thrive in a truer thriller sense, while still achieving a wonderfully arch critique on both the creators and consumers of a certain high art field.

Joining a group of truly enjoyable all-in-one-night films, The Menu thrives more in its balance of genuine tension and comedy than its biting satire of high-end dining culture. It does, however, leave the audience much to chew on about the codependent relationship between consumer and creator in all forms of art mediums, with high-end dining as the most literal example. It’s impossible not to empathise with Slowik when he asks his regular customers to tell him what their last meal was, his existential dread permeating out of the screen, to find his obsessive devotion to his craft has not been responded to in kind.

Whilst not overly successful as a satire (we may be in a cinematic era that is impossible to craft a successful satire), The Menu is highly enjoyable as a comedic thriller in the world of fine dining. Like any great restaurant or food spot, it’s important to appreciate a location on its own terms, and the film’s like The Menu are no different. Anchored by terrific genre performances by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy, you will be charmed by the biting and absurdist humour while you also find yourself on the edge of your seat.

The Menu is in theatres now.

Barbarian Lights Up Halloween Season

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are two forms of successful horror film: one that plays the notes on the familiar scale of horror tropes and ideas, and one that is aware of those notes and plays around them deliberately, keeping you off balance. The latter form is much harder to pull off, as when it lands flat, you can feel audiences disengage and get frustrated with the filmmakers.

To say Barbarian pulled off this magic trick is underselling how enjoyable a theatrical experience it was. This wildly entertaining, formally inventive horror film will have you hiding between your fingers, cackling with glee, and clamouring to see it again all within its tight 102-minute runtime.

To set the table, we begin on a rainy night in a dishevelled area of outer Detroit. Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives alone at her Airbnb, only to discover the house has been double booked by a man (Bill Skarsgård). With as much of a guard as Tess can put up, she enters the house to get out of the rain as she just wants to sort out this mess.

The power of a great horror film is in its believable conceit, allowing the protagonist to become our avatar throughout the story. What feels certain from the opening moments of Barbarian is that writer-director Zach Cregger is making a film that is keenly aware of audience expectations at every single moment. With the success of Jordan Peele and now Cregger (who got his start with the online series Whitest Kids U’ Know), there’s something about being a sketch comedy filmmaker that clearly makes you keenly aware of what your audience expects from a horror film, and how to lean into or subvert those expectations.

This begins with the casting, perhaps Barbarian’s greatest strength. Georgina Campbell (known for her terrific performance in the Black Mirror episode ‘Hang the DJ’), as Tess, exudes stern confidence, making it clear from the opening moments that she is possibly within the framework of a horror film and working to prevent that from happening. She is locking every door she enters, with her guard all the way up. And then there is the casting of Bill Skarsgård, which allowed a level of subversion to take place within the narrative. Garnering a reputation as a horror villain icon, Skarsgård’s character seems keenly aware of this audience awareness and Tess’ weariness of the situation, attempting to put everyone at ease while also heightening the tension with his every action. Too many horror films are weighed down by the baggage of casting bigger actors, but in this situation, the baggage Skarsgård brings to the story only heightens the viewing experience.

Finally, there is the casting of the criminally underused Justin Long as the garbage person AJ. The less said about his character before audiences have seen the film, the better, but there is a surprising amount of social commentary being made in Barbarian that will be great to unpack at a later stage.

Georgina Campbell in Barbarian.

Barbarian is a rare type of gear shift film that makes you want to immediately return for another viewing. Perhaps due to its high level of craft or the stellar casting, Barbarian does not hang solely off its off-kilter structure the same way other similarly structured films do. I am hesitant to even use comparative films to talk about Barbarian, as it may give away some of the shifts that had the audience enraptured. 

It can’t be stated enough how enjoyably bananas Barbarian is. Cregger builds tension to a perfect crescendo only to wrong-foot you on multiple occasions that will elate, not aggravate you. This is a film both intelligent and enjoyable enough to warrant a potential follow-up piece as it is increasingly difficult to discuss this film without specifics. Luckily it should arrive on Disney+ later in the year.

What stands out about Barbarian is the level of visual craft on display that is striking while never overwhelming. A beautiful visual motif is introduced with Tess reflecting sunlight onto a full-length mirror to illuminate what is essentially a dungeon inside this Detroit home, which follows through multiple levels of the film as we delve deeper. Just as Tess is illuminating a new area in this home, Cregger is illuminating new elements to this truly disorientating film experience. Barbarian is designed to spring new elements around every corner to shock and surprise the audience, something it achieves consistently over its entire runtime with a visual flourish that is always aiming to entertain the audience first.

There are rollercoaster films, and then there are films that give you an all-access pass to the amusement park. Barbarian is the latter. With a pitch-perfect cast and a surprisingly deft hand from Cregger, Barbarian is elevated to the best horror film of the year, and a must-see this Halloween.

Barbarian is in theatres now.

The Stylish, Scary Last Night in Soho is Horror Done Right

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a great anxiety or even terror that comes with moving to a new place, but especially for females, since they are more likely to fall victim to perverts and predators who seek to take advantage of them. This horror film is one that brilliantly plays to those fears, benefitting from the helmsmanship of an ever-solid director.

Cornish teenager Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is leaving her rural home for the bright lights and bustling streets of London, where she hopes to fulfil her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Her romanticised notion of the city is tarnished upon arrival, with leering cab drivers, conniving roommates and loud dorm parties all making her experience an unpleasant one, forcing her to move off-campus and into a dingy flat.

Ellie’s new accommodation brings with it a series of strange dreams that transport her back to 1966 and into the body of Sandie (Anja Taylor-Joy) – a blonde who aspires to be a famous singer in West End. Initially, Ellie is enamoured by Sandie’s world and the characters that inhabit it; yet within days, these slumber-induced visions become increasingly nightmarish, before creeping their way into Ellie’s everyday life.

Last Night in Soho (2021) marks a long-awaited return to horror for director Edgar Wright, who has not dabbled in the genre since Shaun of the Dead (2004), the comedic blockbuster that garnered him worldwide fame. Not that he’s completely disassociated himself from the field, mind – in the intervening years, Wright has helmed films such as the buddy-cop parody-pastiche Hot Fuzz (2007) and the humour-laced science-fiction The World’s End (2013), both of which contain horror elements without being outright scary.

Wright’s latest feature, meanwhile, is one that’s crafted to frighten everybody and anybody, even viewers who aren’t usually startled by horror movies. The nameless monsters of Last Night in Soho are some of the most creative and original in years, ranking among the creepiest ever witnessed in the medium. What’s more, Wright is also able to generate scares by leaning quite heavily into the horror genre’s tropes, smartly utilising the clichés seen in countless other films and then subverting them – it’s rather clever stuff.

Jack (Matt Smith) in Last Night in Soho

The cast is excellent too, with great acting from all involved – praise that applies to rising stars McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, the relatively-unknown Michael Ajao, octogenarian Terence Stamp with his sinister aura, and the late Diana Rigg in her final on-screen performance. Yet of all the thespians, it’s Matt Smith who impresses most as Jack, the sharply-dressed, well-spoken London gent who grooms Sandie into becoming part of his seedy empire, his evilness becoming more pronounced as he does.

Long-time fans of Wright’s work will be gratified to know that his affinity for music has not been lost, since Last Night in Soho is paired with a fantastic soundtrack, as per tradition for the director. Tying into Ellie’s affinity for all things retro, there’s a wide array of Sixties pop songs to be heard – some that are familiar to the ear, others more obscure – that contribute to a fun, upbeat atmosphere; and when proceedings are creepier, Wright utilises the talents of composer Steven Price, who delights once again with a neat orchestral soundtrack.

While Last Night in Soho is undoubtedly a great film, there are some faults that prevent it from being perfect. The most glaring of these flaws is a persistent bugbear of Wright’s, that being a predictable screenplay, with the twists and revelations being rather easy to foresee. Of smaller consequence is the comparatively sedate direction of Wright, who has shown more liveliness and flair in releases past, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Baby Driver (2017).

Regardless, this is still a fun romp that satisfies anybody in need of a good scare. With a fantastic soundtrack, cast, monsters and ability to generate dread, Last Night in Soho represents yet more excellence from one of the most creative, eclectic and original blockbuster directors working today.

Last Night in Soho is available now on home-video and on-demand platforms.

9 Campy, Schlock Horror Films to Watch this Schlocktober

It’s that time of year again when people across the world start getting their pumpkins ready for carving and their costumes ready for wearing. It’s also that time of year when horror fanatics dive into their favourite horror films as Halloween nears. To prepare you for Halloween on the 31st of October, I thought I’d make a list of 9 campy, schlock-horror films to watch before the 31st. Most of these films are about as B movie as you can get with their small budgets, practical effects, zany plots, and comical performances. So lets look at some of the titles.

Bad Taste (1987)

As a life-long devotee to anything Peter Jackson related (given I’m a Kiwi), Bad Taste is about as great a debut feature as one can make. Not only was this film made with a small budget, but it was able to do so much with how little it had. Jackson made this with his friends and shot most of the film at his parents NZ house, with a documentary somewhere online showing his mum handing out sandwiches in-between takes.

The film has some structure for about the first 15-20min and then just quickly goes off the rails as practical effects subsume all coherency, and all out carnage ensues. There’s a scene involving barf drinking, there’s blood squirting almost consistently, there’s dudes in ninja costumes, guns galore, and there’s RPG explosions.

The film is really a testament to Jackson’s creativity and it’s far from his best schlock induced work (Braindead would follow), but it is a thrilling and outright enjoyable 90 minutes that never gives you any respite. It’s crazy to think studio executives would give Jackson The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) to direct, but boy did they make the right choice.

The Evil Dead (1981)

It’s hard to make a list like this without including Sam Raimi’s ever celebrated The Evil Dead. In its 40 years, the film has withstood the test of time to become a cult classic in the horror genre. The film, while definitely more of a professional, serious production, would go on to inspire and pave the way for a wave of 80’s and 90’s schlock horror and campy films.

The premise revolves around a bunch of college students, a cabin in the woods, and a mysterious book that unleashes a demonic force to hunt the students down. It really is a premise with three signature horror elements that has been parodied and done-over countless times.

It’s another example of making do with what you’ve got, and boy does Raimi make do. Plenty of gore to be had and also scares, which is something that this film has over the others on the list as it is more of a nuanced horror that happens to fall into this schlock category as well.

Frankenhooker (1990)

Frankenhooker is just as its name suggests — a Frankenstein zombie made from the body parts of prostitutes. Made by Frank Henenlotter, known for such titles as Basket Case (1982) and Brain Damage (1988), Frankenhooker is about a guy that blows up some prostitutes and stitches them back together to create his dead fiancé (who was killed by a lawnmower).

The film is a comical exploitation film that leans into physical humour for laughs. Though the film falls under sexploitation and is no doubt misogynistic, it has retained a cult status for its nonsensicalness and bemusing premise. The film gets more wild as the scenes roll on, with Elizabeth (the concoction of those prostitute parts) eventually getting a greater consciousness and exacting revenge.

There is evidently a lot of love and care that has gone into the film which give it that rewatch status and it’s no doubt a trashy 90 or so minutes to be had.  

Braindead (1992)

If I haven’t made it obvious, I’m a sucker for anything Peter Jackson related. Braindead is no exception and is one of the best films in the schlock horror, B movie category.

New Zealand humour and LOTS of blood subsume the film in this gore fest where Jackson is pretty much set on just destroying any and all human costumes and props. From the outset, Jackson is set on entertaining the audience as he leans into chaotic scenes involving intestine like creatures, zombies, swinging babies, and all while injecting the film with delirious gags and infectious humour.

Braindead is to the comedy-horror genre what Blade Runner (1982) is to the sci-fi genre.

Night Train to Terror (1985)

I don’t know where to start with this film. It’s like if Snowpiercer (2013) met Zoolander (2001) and Step-Up (2006), and even then that would still be an understatement. The film is quintessential viewing if B movie, schlock horror comedies are your thing.

Everything takes place on a train and the stories are absurd with multiple different ones intertwined throughout. The acting is bonkers, the humour feels out of place but works because it is, the practical effects are a staple of the time, and for some reason God and Satan are just having a casual chat amidst all the chaos.

It’s really an experience to be had rather than one that can be articulated as, like Sean Baker says on Letterboxd, the film is “Such an insane mess of a movie”.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

As its name suggests, the film is about some killer clowns from space that come to earth and terrorise those they meet.

There really isn’t much to say in the way of what to expect or what works. Everything works because it doesn’t — the absurdness of the plot and performances lean into a humorous telling, and there is just a bunch of nonsensical killing that many would find is “so bad it’s good”.

I’m usually not good with horror movies in general let alone horror movies with clowns, but because this film (like most on this list) are as crude and bizarre as horror movies go, it was worth a mention.

Chopping Mall (1986)

Aside from having one of the greatest simple titles of any film on this list, Chopping Mall is also (from memory) the only film on here (save for Death Spa) that brings robots into the equation!

I like to think of this film as The Breakfast Club (1985) meets WALL-E (2008), only WALL-E is a killer robot. Teens basically get trapped in a shopping mall after the mall goes into lockdown, only for security robots to go on a killing spree to rid these ‘intruders’. That’s really it.

The film is about as 80’s B movie as they come, with lots of satirical elements (particularly pertaining to mall culture and how prominent that was among teens at the time), scenes involving electrocution and also laser death.

Death Spa (1989)

Like Chopping Mall but also unlike Chopping Mall, Death Spa sees the spa computer system turn the workout equipment and other facets of the spa (including steam rooms and hair driers) against the spa goers.

It’s a ludicrous film (but what film on this list isn’t?), with garbage acting and a forgettable premise, but it keeps people coming back for its absurdity and how it doesn’t hesitate to knuckle down on its trashiness. The props and practical effects are lacking in comparison to most of the films on this list, but it has that 80’s vibe and colour palette that seem to be enough to keep viewers coming back.

The only thing missing from the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger and this would have been the Mr Olympia training film of the century.  

TerrorVision (1986)

Rounding off the list is a film where a family’s newly installed satellite dish attracts alien signals and eventually, the aliens themselves.

The film is a bizarre delight with cheap set designs, a very satirical undertone (basically ripping into everything 80’s), goofy characters, a surprisingly diverse cast (including Gerrit Graham, Jon Gries, and Bert Remsen), a very cartoony feel, and practical effects that get the job done. 

Essentially, if you wanted to get an idea of what the 80’s looked and felt like (from the hairdo’s, fashion, music and comedy), then this is the film for you.