The 2020 short film “Heck,” directed by Kyle Edward Ball, begins with audio static and a black screen. Then, a blurred, horizontal, purplish-pink line appears, strobing with digital noise, looking almost like a neon tube filled with helium before the camera turns and focuses, assuming the point of view of a child waking up and looking at the cracked door of their room as faint light drifts in. In the background, the sound of a TV playing recognizably old-sounding music grows louder and louder as the camera and the child wander into their mother’s empty bedroom. At the foot of the unmade bed, a small television plays an early-era cartoon, its flashing light throwing a red glow onto the room and the empty bed.
The detail of the missing mother is reiterated as the child calls out for her, but also through subtitle. “Mom?” is superimposed in thick sans-serif letters, the same font seen on older closed-captioned TV shows and movies, a digital emulation of age that will become even more pronounced two years later, when the short film is expanded into the feature-length Skinamarink. Perhaps more interesting than this retro-inspired stylistic choice is the sound design of the child’s voice, which comes through muffled and distant, as if what the viewer is hearing is simultaneously emanating from an intercom and from within the child’s body.
What becomes clear after the first few minutes of “Heck” is the degree to which an overarching mood—tense, prolonged, obscured both visually and sonically—is meant to pervade over any conventional narrative horror action. Handheld shots creeping through the house trouble the distinction between POV and a more distant cinematic omniscience, made all the more unsettling by the fact that the child is only ever heard, not seen. Writer-director Ball seems disinterested in immediate spatial context, often combing over the same areas of the house slowly until a general impression of the area begins to take shape. As for the people in his film, they too become abstracted.
In some ways, the frustration that can come with watching a film as oblique as “Heck” is, in part, tied to the fact that we either learn nothing or a lot about the mother and her child without really understanding the significance of this withholding. At one point, either the child or the mother (the line is delivered, as every piece of dialogue is, offscreen) says, “I’m sorry I got cancer,” but this information comes through subtitle, the audio barely registering as more than a vibration.
Which is to say that “Heck” is an experiment in patience, one that tries, imperfectly, to teach you how to watch it. There is little to hang onto that a viewer expects from a film, no sense of place, no non-diegetic music, no well-lit spaces, no clear voices, no recognizable plot, and, for a long while, no human bodies or faces. What is present are suggestions—of shapes and sounds, of possibilities as to how or why the things that are occurring are being presented in this way, as some kind of almost-found document that has been so deliberately doctored to feel stuck out of time.
These are retroactive observations.
I watched “Heck” on my laptop only after seeing its successor, Skinamarink, in theaters. Five people in the audience at my screening walked out, likely more due to frustration than fear. Watching the shorter blueprint highlights the specificities of its feature-length viral sensation. With “Heck,” Ball seemed to still be calibrating his directorial sensibilities. Like the short film, Skinamarink follows two young siblings trapped in their home. But Ball for the most part abandons handheld photography, committing to what would seem—to those who left my theater before the halfway mark—to be a series of dimly-lit, random shots of the interior of a house, accompanied by distant voiceover and static.
Much has been made of this last detail, the digitally-applied grain, attempting to emulate a DV transfer to VHS. The swirling particles and filmic noise rendered in the film do not necessarily look convincing to anyone who’s watched an actual VHS, but still add a texture, and, eventually, after spending so much time in the near-dark, a unique verisimilitude all their own. Audiences have noted the way the fake grain lends itself to seeing humanoid shapes or false movement in dark corners and between cuts. This is true, especially when one is primed with a horror film to expect to see something, and Skinamarink toys with both that expectation and the viewer’s patience. But the larger curiosity to me remains the subject of perspective. If what we are seeing has been doctored to look like a found document, who is manning the camera?
This would be easier to write off if there were an extra-narrative frame explicit in the film: an aging print found rotting in someone’s attic, a hard drive discovered after years lost, etc. But the camera, as many camcorders do, often casts its own light on walls and floors, captures the scanning artifacts—those tell-tale horizontal lines on pre-LED screens—between the camera and the old school TV, turns on its night vision, and seemingly records native audio. The tell-tale aesthetic trappings of found footage are deployed here, though deliberately obfuscated. It gives Skinamarink the verisimilitude of the found footage genre, particularly the slowness of what can often feel like real time passing in a given scene. Authorship is certainly present in Skinamarink, but it comes at the level of a traditional narrative film, each shot carrying with it deliberate composition and the sense that the camera is looking pointedly away from what’s just out of frame.
Ball also has a YouTube channel called Bitesized Nightmares, where he takes comments from Reddit and elsewhere about people’s nightmares and recreates them in short videos that bear a resemblance in mood, if not in form, to Skinamarink. They offer a more straightforward approach to things, the camera standing in for the viewer as it creeps through a house or hides from a mysterious noise. Part of what’s so unsettling about Skinamarink, then, is the fact that there is a collapsing between subjective and omniscient viewer. When is the audience adopting the perspective of one of the young children wandering through the house, and when is it something else entirely?
I kept thinking of Lake Mungo when watching Skinamarink. Lake Mungo is 2008 Australian horror mockumentary (the term here alluding to the film’s excellent recreation of documentary styles and conventions rather than a satire of them), about a family devastated by the death of teenage daughter Alice, and subsequently haunted by secrets posthumously revealed. Both films are ciphers, motivated in part by the alternately unsettling and melancholic reality that one’s family is forever unknowable. Immediately, Lake Mungo has a few notable, stark differences from Skinamarink. First, it’s captured on real film, its tactility unquestionable, often rendering the faces of its subjects flattened, keylight shining off foreheads and the tips of noses, a finer, more uniform grain pervading the frame. Second, Lake Mungo’s documentary format means talking heads, B-roll, moody music, more obvious linearity, and, crucially, a keener awareness of authorship. As the family discusses how well they thought they knew Alice, clashing perspectives gradually develop a more nuanced, complicated picture of both her and the supernatural circumstances of her death, all of which corresponds with the familiar dramatic tensions audiences have with true crime shows and other “real” media that bucks under the presence of a heavy, guiding editorial hand.
Third, and most salient here, is the presentation of technology. Specifically, Lake Mungo melds both traditional film stock with DV camcorder footage captured by Alice’s brother, Mathew; local psychic Ray, whom the family employs to communicate with Alice; and incidental tapes made by various neighbors and residents of their small town. The shift between these two formats throughout Lake Mungo is key for what it reveals about Skinamarink’s canny usage of just one. Embedded in the distortion and grain, both films suggest, might be realities too horrific to fathom. There is the sense that without the ability to cheaply capture daily life on personal devices like cameras and cellphones, one might not notice what’s hidden.
One of the prevailing reactions to Skinamarink has been an impulse to compare the film to nightmares and phobias from one’s own childhood, a neat circle wrapping back around to the inspiration for Ball’s YouTube channel. In the film, windows and doors disappear, along with the two siblings’ parents. After a while, as the visual language of Skinamarink starts to sink in, the thought crosses one’s mind that these things have not disappeared, but have instead been consumed. The entity that does so makes itself known mostly through speech, its voice morphing inelegantly in and out of the voices of the children’s parents, as though it has stolen them, or, in some theories, as if it’s puppeting the parents around. Any of these details can do highly suggestible work on their own. Abandonment, replacement, impersonation, imprisonment, coercion—all discomfiting enough without anything supernatural taking place. My clearest memories of childhood fear don’t bear any resemblance to what takes place in Skinamarink, though the darkness does take on the same staticky whirlwind it so evocatively uses, forms given weight and movement in the dark that would lose all shape and consequence in daylight.
Which is why the question of the film’s relationship to found footage is not one of “if.” Skinamarink is very clearly in conversation with the genre, even if its categorization as such feels inaccurate. More, Skinamarink presents a case of found memory, the scratches and wear of time on one’s recollection disfiguring, yet never wholly obscuring, foundational apprehensions. We might grow out of childhood misunderstandings or naiveties. We might even move past certain irrational fears. But Ball illustrates an alternate, chilling landscape wherein childhood literally cannot be escaped because time does not move forward and the house one grew up in is all that there is.
There is an abuse narrative to consider, which gives this idea a pronounced bite. The young boy, Kevin, begins the film with a broken arm, which the sister and father claim is the result of a sleepwalking accident, though there is never any attempt to make this reasoning convincing. Later, in one excruciatingly tense sequence, the sister is called upstairs to the parents’ bedroom, where mother and father sit facing away from each other in the dark, on the edge of the bed. The father entreats his daughter to repeatedly look under the bed, and when he suddenly disappears, the mother shakily tries to tell her daughter that they both love her and that the father…
But we never find out what she means to say. The mother is cut off before she herself disappears. And of course, there is the fact that throughout the entire film, the siblings only ever whisper. Even before strange things begin to happen, Kevin and Kaylee never raise their voices, their conversations taking on the parameters of well-rehearsed punishment. Near the end, Kevin, previously stymied by downed lines, is finally able to make a call to the police. Even if one doesn’t buy into an explicit trauma allegory, the format of the ensuing conversation clearly follows that of first responders speaking with potential abuse victims.
Skinamarink is ultimately a veiled story about the reality of bad things. For one, the ultimate end of the film is far too abstract and otherworldly for that. No, what Ball does so effectively is allow all possibilities to freely oscillate. If you see an abuse narrative, what comes through all the formal rigor is the essential terror and helplessness of such a situation, a truth of feeling and sensation, if not direct experience. At the same time, if you see something else entirely, that same rigor—all those shots of ceilings and staircases and toys strewn on the floor and flickering TVs and fuzzy subtitles and oppressive shadows—concretizes into a kind of death loop, so that whatever theory you might have only ever bounces back at you, plausible yet never fully confirmed. Skinamarink’s exitless setting is recreated in its very marrow, the viewer free to speculate at will because, for a moment, they feel they will never be able to leave.
Lake Mungo, at least on the level of plot and linearity, stands in opposition to Skinamarink, almost a photo negative. Two pairs of siblings whose sisters disappear, whose paths diverge and overlap as they try to find their way toward one another. Skinamarink’s dedication to a thrumming, screen-lit non-time plays in the background of Lake Mungo’s engrossing, knotted mystery. Both films dwell in the half-seen bizarro world captured by a camcorder, one where light moves and screams through static, where real life is recreated to be just slightly off—too loud, too bright, too saturated, too dark. Where real life is easily manipulated.
It was difficult for me, upon first viewing Skinamarink, to get past its false VHS look. I know that, for some, this wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t necessarily the falsity that bothered me. What made me uneasy was the absence of a clear delineation between what footage was “captured” by a camera and what was “seen” by the children. As the film continues, as blood is spilled and the malevolent presence in the house becomes bolder, more insistent, more sadistic, I became convinced that the entire story was taking place from the entity’s perspective, that the house itself was simply a body over which it had absolute control, absolute knowledge. At one point, Kevin watches the entity clean a ruined room in the blink of an eye.
“How did you do that?” Kevin asks.
“I can do anything,” the entity replies.
Distance, specifically between the audience and Kevin, collapses even more near the end of the film. More and more, what we see feels like it’s from his point of view. Any awareness of space and time is scrambled as the house literally turns upside down, and, in the film’s second sparse indicator of time following its initial setup in 1995, a startling title appears on the screen that reads “572 days.” Ball’s claustrophobic method ramps up further with these last revelations. It’s information that could easily have been saved for a final closing sequence where words over a black screen tell you exactly what happened to the family, when or if they were found, and what became of the house. But Ball places it just off from the end, perhaps Skinamarink’s only bird’s-eye view of the enormity of what’s transpired, and still the film continues.
Found footage centers an awareness of viewership more than most genres. What we are shown is often packaged with a disclaimer that the following is based on true events, that the material was salvaged or otherwise preserved, that the mysteries contained within—people, places, objects—still haven’t been reclaimed or explained. The sentence trails off forever and what we’re left with is another paean to how little we understand about the world and what’s in it. This distortion burrows down into the marrow of things. It disturbs a sense of normalcy but also a sense of self.
What I said before, about the camera capturing something that can’t normally be seen, the ability to rewind and examine a detail in the background, exposes us to a plane just below our perception. The camera doesn’t simply record—it translates and transfigures. In the case of the above four films, its images are glimpses into the void, and the question is no longer “What am I seeing?” but “What does the act of being seen do to me?”
In Lake Mungo, Alice sees herself just before she dies. Enjoying a trip to the titular lake, now completely dry, she wanders around with her friends at night, unenthused, filming the events on her phone’s camera, that same feeling of something approaching that she admitted to the psychic plaguing her. Ironically, as she separates from the group and makes her way elsewhere, she finds exactly what she hoped not to. Just ahead, the bright light of her phone just barely bouncing off of it, Alice sees a figure standing still. She goes closer and closer until she sees it clearly: her own self, her drowned body before the drowning occurs, face gray and swollen, eyes shut, waiting for her. This image, rife with pixels and stray digital artifacts, stays onscreen for a few seconds, but it lingers long after. I’ve been able to recall it clearly ever since I first watched Lake Mungo. And clearly, I was not the only person for whom that image came to mind when watching Skinamarink.
Not long after I saw Skinamarink, Twitter user @weirdcities posted a photo gallery of four film stills from Noroi: The Curse, Lake Mungo, Skinamarink, and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Each is taken from a work that is either explicitly found footage, or, in the case of the last two, flitting in and out of the genre. The images are starkly different, but they communicate the same horror: four faces, manipulated and disfigured, directed towards the camera, fulcrums around which each film turns.
Memory is a labyrinth, and what is trapped inside with you changes form and size, overwhelming you or flitting just beyond recollection. Kyle Edward Ball understands this as both a fruitful source of terror and an unfortunate inevitability. It’s the same feeling I get when I look at old pictures of my grandmother or my mother and her brothers, tinted photographs of times gone by, alternately nostalgic and vertigo-inducing. I can’t help but ask myself where those people went, the people my family used to be, the echoes of their past so real and yet utterly cut off from my reach. And then, I think of all that wasn’t photographed, the nightmares I had when I was little, the shadows I saw move in the corner of my bedroom, the tricks my mind played on me in the dark that I still remember. The camera flash banishes away the irrational, but only for a second. Eventually, we all have to close our eyes and relinquish ourselves to whatever our brains have in store for us.
Skinamarink’s staying power will rest on this truth. Ball crafts his own cinematic language, a spare, at times cozy, often chilling sensory experience of being buried alive within one’s own mind. Its depiction is of a waking nightmare, where the familiar is warped and severed. Walls expand and contract, mouths and eyes disappear, the TV never shuts off, and time repeats itself. In one sequence, blood splatters onto the carpeted floor, a scream accompanying it, before the sequence rewinds and moves forward again. The film up to this point has been lethargic, punctuated by strange noises and disembodied voices, by moving objects and abandoned toys. The rhythm Ball builds gives one the comfort of knowing that nothing is actually going to jump out at you. Then, at the end, the dial cranks to the right and you feel the hand that turns it. Whatever malignant force lives in the house draws back the curtain and reveals the extent of its power, the extent to which it has made lives as well as bodies and their parts simply vanish.
Skinamarink’s facelessness, literally the fact that there are no faces shown, only breaks when it shows you incomplete ones, heads turned away, or smooth planes of skin where lips and eyes used to be. The entity does this to Kaylee, its explanation for taking her face that she needed to be punished. The nightmare skips and jumps as Kevin struggles to reach anyone outside the house, to escape from the house itself. Then the entity stops it all, the flashing images and bloodcurdling sounds. It makes Kevin go to bed, where surely the embrace of sleep will bring assurances of peace. But, before it leaves him, the entity stands next to Kevin’s bed, and here we see, for the first and last time, the face of whatever it is that’s been tormenting us. The swirling VHS effect and the darkness of the room obscure any notion of the expression the entity has. I only saw an unchanging smile. Kevin asks, “What’s your name?” The entity never answers. It just stands there, morphing, and waits.