Kyle Edward Ball started his filmmaking career by collecting nightmares.
“I have a YouTube channel where people comment with nightmares they’ve had and I would recreate them,” he says. “The most commonly shared one was basically the same concept: ‘I’m between the ages of 6 to 10. I’m in my house. My parents are either dead or missing, and there’s a threat I have to deal with.’ I was interested in that because I have a vivid nightmare from that time, too. I thought it was amazing that almost everyone seems to have this dream, so I wanted to explore this thing. I just ran with it and turned it into a movie.”
The result? “Skinamarink,” a micro-budget horror feature that has been haunting the internet after a few key festival screenings. A savvy blend of traditional narrative and art film, “Skinamarink” is much more focused on atmosphere and sound design than actors or a dense mythology. With visuals that combine David Lynch’s low-fi style from “Inland Empire” with the aesthetic of dusty ’70s family movies pulled from the attic, it’s a claustrophobic hallucination that blends the scariest ideas from childhood into a dreamy, dreadful experience.
A theatrical release was recently announced for January via IFC Midnight, and it will find a home on horror streaming service Shudder later in 2023. But up to now, the film’s production and release has been a roller coaster for Ball.
The first challenge? Ball, a first-time filmmaker, needed to raise funds, and was able to scrape together about $15,000, mostly through crowdfunding. From there, he was able to make every dollar count, from shooting for free in his childhood home in Edmonton, Canada, to borrowing equipment from the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta, a non-profit co-op that helps independent filmmakers.
In fact, Ball and his assistant director Joshua Bookhalter — who died during post-production, and to whom the film is dedicated — used the shoestring budget to their advantage, utilizing creative shots and staging to imply movement and terror just offscreen, out of sight. The result is a feature consisting of unconventional viewpoints and angles influenced by the limitations of seeing the world from the eyes of the two central children, and the unknown malevolence spying on them.
Unlike previous micro-budget horror hits — think 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” or 2007’s “Paranormal Activity” — “Skinamarink” is not found-footage or improvised, with a story carved together in the editing bay. Ball’s film was fully scripted in advance, with shots carefully composed to add depth and fear, in an effort to harness his limitations.
“I joke with people that, ‘We made it for the price of a premium pre-owned vehicle,'” Ball says.
The release of “Skinamarink” began when it was accepted into this year’s edition of Canada’s genre-heavy Fantasia International Film Festival. When the first screening was met warmly, with a packed late night, post-screening Q&A, Ball first realized that audiences might be connecting to his unconventional film.
After that, things got complicated. Ball was excited to see “Skinamarink” word-of-mouth grow after five more festival slots, but unfortunately, a technical snafu during one of the at-home screenings made the film available to be pirated, despite assurances from the platform it would be safe.
“I think people were under the impression we didn’t have distribution and they were doing us a favor by pirating, but we did have a plan,” Ball says.
As the pirated version spread, so did the visceral reactions hitting social media. For a genre where concepts and word-of-mouth attract more attention than big names and special effects, the chatter ignited interest. Scores of TikToks deemed it the scariest movie ever (one video with over 23k likes refers to it as the movie that “is traumatizing everyone on TikTok”); Reddit posts with frenzied titles started heated debates (“Skinamarink just scared me more than any other movie in at least a decade”); and breathless YouTube videos (“Tik Tok Tried To Warn Me About This Movie | Skinamarink”) popped up every day. Amazingly, “Skinamarink” is sitting at number 12 on Letterboxd’s “Top 50 Horror Films of 2022” list, ahead of well-received box office fare like “The Black Phone” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies.”
Ball was frank when he spoke about the complications he faced as an artist receiving praise from fans who pirated his movie.
“Before it was pirated, on Twitter when anyone talked about my movie I would ‘like’ it,” he says. “If they did fan art, I’d retweet it. It’s so cool that people are doing fan art! Since it’s been pirated, it’s been difficult, because no filmmaker wants to tsk tsk someone who’s saying, ‘Oh my God, I love your movie,’ right? At the end of the day, I am happy that someone saw my film and it touched them. Obviously, I would have preferred they see it through a more legitimate means, because that does affect me and that does affect the other people who have helped with the film.”
Jane Schoenbrun, director of the buzzy low-budget horror film “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” which also attracted a lot of online discussion, agrees that “Skinamarink” is a uniquely scary work of art.
“It’s maybe the only movie experience I’ve ever had that fully captured a unique feeling of terror that I think a lot of people in my age bracket felt as kids online, reading scary stories or watching apparently ‘cursed’ videos on the Internet in the middle of the night,” Schoenbrun says. “After the whole world has gone to sleep, the liminality of reality can be an utterly terrifying experience alone in your bedroom or with the lights off in in your house. ‘Skinamarink’ is a movie that commits so fiercely to that feeling and and trying to create an experience for viewers that that destabilizes and breaks reality.”
Samuel Zimmerman, Shudder’s VP of programming, explains why the film was a must-have for the service that aims to bring members “the scariest, most singular horror films imaginable.”
“‘Skinamarink’ is a distinct gem, a living nightmare that’s some of the most exciting, unsettling new work in the genre,” Zimmerman says. “Really, it’s the best kind of horror movie, one unlike any other, that announces the arrival of a special new filmmaker.”
Next up for Ball? He’s currently kicking around two ideas that both sound like a logical extension of “Skinamarink”: One is a take on the Pied Piper legend, the other about three strangers who all see the same house in a dream. He plans to write this winter and maybe even start shooting by summer 2023, and is excited to explore more dark corners in a genre that allowed him to have a voice even without a massive budget.
“I believe that people who come from more humble means do deserve a shot at making a movie if their idea is good,” he says. “I also think it makes for a better product. If only rich people get to make movies, obviously that’s going to get stale after a while. I think having more voices from more corners of the world creates more interesting dialogues, and makes more interesting movies in the long run.”