Skinamarink director Kyle Edward Ball knows what haunts our nightmares
How the most terrifying viral horror movie went from festival sensation to piracy cautionary tale.
Growing up, there was nothing more terrifying than your own home in the dark of night.
Skinamarink director Kyle Edward Ball knows that. In fact, he made it a point to play on that collective fear and take it to the next level, warping it into something so sinister it becomes unrecognizable.
The viral horror sensation, releasing in theaters on January 13, tells the tale of Kevin and Kaylee, two children who wake in the middle of the night to discover that their father has completely disappeared. Soon, the windows and doors of the home start vanishing too. To cope with the unexplainable, the siblings take solace in a living room sleepover complete with blankets, toys, and somewhat eerie vintage cartoons playing on a loop. But a voice starts calling out to them from the darkness, and it isn’t long before reality goes liminal and something monstrous surfaces.
This isn’t the first time Ball has played in this terrifying sandbox. He got his start on YouTube with an inventive channel that highlights nightmares, which the Edmonton native recreated into mini films from user submissions.
“I noticed the most common nightmare was a dream people remember from their childhood: I'm between the ages of six and 10, my parents are dead or missing, and there's a monster,” Ball tells Inverse. That dream birthed Heck, his 30-minute proof of concept short that follows a similar story to his feature with key differences.
“It was a process. Heck was, ‘Let's see how this experiment goes,’” Ball says of the project, which premiered online shortly before Covid hit. “But also I'll change a few things, and when I get to the feature, I’ll know I want to do this and that.”
That learned confidence was key with Skinamarink, an unsettling onslaught of primal terror whose title accidentally shares a name with an old children’s rhyme (with one letter off).
“It's personal, sentimental, and feels personal to other people; it’s child-like and makes no sense,” the filmmaker adds. “It felt like it fit the feeling of the movie. Originally, it was supposed to just be a working title. But it stuck.”
$15,000, eight days, and one skeleton crew — helmed by assistant director Joshua Bookhalter, who sadly died during post-production and is immortalized with a dedication in the final film — later, Ball built a convincing maze of unbridled dread out of his childhood home using clever camera tricks and impossibly low light. Ball’s unique approach to the genre landed the film a world premiere at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, and word quickly spread as it traversed the festival circuit.
An unfortunate incident occurred with one digital slate — during which the film and many others playing this particular festival were leaked and then pirated — making room for TikTok and Reddit to turn the highly anticipated indie into a contorted copypasta, with some folks even believing they’d seen the unearthing of a lost project or allegedly cursed media. But with beloved horror streamer Shudder being dedicated curators of the genre, distribution came to Ball’s horror masterpiece regardless. The streamer and horror label IFC Midnight teamed up to bring the film to theaters much earlier than planned, meeting the demand virality brings with an extra spooky Friday the 13th opening. Ahead of the theatrical premiere, Ball sat down with Inverse to explore his conflicting feelings about piracy, as well as reveal if anyone was ever actually there, lurking in the darkness.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Talk to me about the piracy controversy. What do you want people to know about it?
So, after Fantasia [in July 2022], it didn't take more than a couple of days to get Shudder to look at it and fall in love with it. We're gonna play a handful of European festivals, and then we'll have our release for the coveted Halloween 2023 date. We won an award at the festival in Turin, which was awesome. Then we were going to play — I prefer not to mention the festival just because I really don't think it was the festival's fault. We were a part of a European festival’s online portion and the streaming service they partnered with had a previous track record playing festivals, including some fairly big ones, with no piracy issues.
Time comes for the festival. I was searching Twitter all the time for the keyword Skinamarink. I saw that some Twitter account that posts piracy links had listed Skinamarink. I also noticed, “Oh, these look familiar. These all played at this festival.” Within hours, the festival took its entire online slate off the website and issued a notice. I felt so bad because they didn't spend an entire year programming stuff just to have it pirated. And other films weren't so lucky. A lot of the other films didn't have a deal signed with a major streaming service right out of the gate.
I started panicking because [the film was] getting shared more and more. The whole time I thought, “OK, what if Shudder rips up the deal?” So I was tied up in emotional knots for three weeks thinking I’d won the horror filmmaker lottery and now I might not have. Finally, I got confirmation from my distributor and Shudder. They said, “It sucks, but don't worry, we're not gonna rip up the contract.”
“My movie wasn't even out yet and, already, I was at the center of a Twitter controversy.”
That speaks to Shudder and their dedication to the genre. I don't know that it would have shaken out that way with another studio or distributor.
I want to be clear to people: Don't use this as a case example for your movie. Don't think, “I'll leak my own movie because Skinamarink got a Shudder deal after.” This was something that was signed months before. After I found out, a huge weight was lifted. [Shudder] said, “OK, we'll obviously have to move a few things to accommodate this, we'll move the release date to January instead of Halloween.” In the meantime, the movie was shared heavily and had blown up in a few places, including TikTok. My movie wasn't even out yet and, already, I was at the center of a Twitter controversy. It put me in kind of a weird position because obviously, I'm not happy the movie was leaked, but if someone's sending me fan art, I can't get angry at them. As much as there may be an inclination for that, there's a common humanity because they enjoyed my movie. It was also kind of neat, right? For a while, I couldn't get anyone to look at my videos, and now there's a Twitter discourse about my movie.
There is truth to this, right? I'm not just doing a PR thing. Yes, I'm pissed off people pirated my movie. But I am still, at the end of the day, happy if they enjoyed it. I've walked that line ever since. Let's say in spite of the piracy, the movie does well for the type of movie it is at the box office. It’s an exception to the rule, I think. Don't think that another movie that doesn't get this huge buzz won't be harmed by piracy.
What gave you the right with that ending? I don't think there's ever been a movie that turns the eye on the viewer like that at the end.
I've had people DM me like, “What? So what is this?”’ Also, it doesn't matter what I think anymore. Now it's your movie. When I was shooting and editing it, I was like, “This is how I want the viewer to feel.” It's been so amazing seeing people actually feel the way I planned it. It takes time to get even the jumpscares. I had to go back and play with sound. [One] towards the end, that's the nineteenth iteration of it. Originally, it was something completely different. That was originally not in the script. At one point, there's a cartoon they’re watching that has a spider monster. Then I did something where I stole something from The Twilight Zone movie where it was going to be a giant eye. I went through a bunch of different iterations.
How did you get this film to look and feel the way it does? You use a very specific tactic of shooting away from the action, which when paired with the tonal darkness both visually and auditorily, it makes the stuff that's happening off-camera actually scary. You're actually afraid of what's going on out there.
When I was doing my YouTube channel, I got creative because I didn't have access to actors. I discovered ways of heavily implying stuff. I was also gravitating toward the lo-fi look. As a kid, and later as a grown-up, I thought, “Why don't we still make movies like this? Why can't I make a movie like it's from the ‘70s? Or the ‘50s? The ‘30s?” It evolved into, “What if I did an entire movie in this style?” So I started writing my script.
The script is literally like it is in the movie. It'll say, interior living room, we're looking at the ceiling, we don't see the children and then their dialogue. It wasn't just, “Let's shoot a bunch of B-roll and we'll put it all in later.” It was planned like that.
Working with my amazing director of photography, Jamie McCrae, I said, “OK let's get a really good camera that's really good in low light and see if we can just use practicals.” I set some rules for myself. We can only use practical lights: flashlights, light coming off a TV, a lamp. That will also help with working with child actors and with time. It turned out to work fairly well.
“I wanted to do a Room 237 scene.”
Another big thing was the scenes that are set in pitch black. Obviously, we couldn't shoot 100% pitch black unless we used infrared, so we developed this technique of putting a sun gun on top of the camera, putting a blue filter over it, and grading with it. When I got to post, I discovered I couldn’t just cut the whole thing at once and then make it look or sound old after the fact. I had to do it in tandem. The mood is so intrinsically tied to the lo-fi aspect of it that it was impossible. So I did it step by step; that's really why the editing took four months.
As far as the special effects, a lot of it was just simple old Hollywood tricks that you can get away with if you're using a layer of grain over it. There's a few parts where things appear on the ceiling, floating. That was literally just me holding it up and photoshopping myself out. The doors and windows, I just Content Awared them out.
As far as the sound, too, some of the sound effects, the dialogue and the rustling of the blankets and stuff is all modern sound that I dirtied up. But I also found a treasure trove of public domain old sound effects from the ‘40s up into the late ‘60s that someone had compiled as a library. That was great too because all the sound effects have this eerie, old-timey feel to it.
There are shots where it's very clear that the viewer should be looking very hard into these images of seemingly nothing. Of course, our brain wants there to be something. In any of those shots, is there actually anything there?
There is one shot in the movie where there is someone, a real person, standing in the dark, and I am never telling anyone which shot that is. I promise you I'm not bullshitting. But there is a shot of darkness where we did have someone standing in frame and I thought it'd be creepy for this shot to pull it down so much, but not so much that they disappeared completely. I’ll never tell, and that’s the magic. Maybe a video forensicist will find it one day.
The impossible scenes in the movie — specifically, that scene in the hallway, which is just eerie, creepy, awful.
It’s this “Oh my god, what the f**k is happening?” moment. That shot in particular is almost completely identical to what appears in the script. [It was] a shot to say, “OK, what is this place?” A big inspiration for it, I stole it from the final shot of Solaris (1972), when the main character sees that old house and he sees his dad. And then we pull out and pull out and we realize this is just a memory on the planet Solaris. It's so unnerving and weird.
There were so many other little special effects in the movie that were so hard to get that I thought were going to be so easy. But that scene eerily went off without a hitch. It's basically a digital map painting. I just keyed out this section, and then Content Aware removed all the doors and then the rest of it, all those toys, that's just as is. For all the pull-outs, I just kept making the Content Aware aspect of it more and more vague.
Let's not even get to the “look under the bed” scene, but I'll even give a little bit for that. I think a lot of filmmakers since The Shining have been like, “What's my Room 237 scene?” I wanted to do a Room 237 scene.
How does it feel to you to watch it back and see your house portrayed in this light? You're giving the audience the catharsis because we all resonate with the feelings that are brought up within this film, but you're actually the only person who can truly feel it in the way that it's intended because you shot it in your own childhood home.
When you do something so incrementally, the scale and weirdness of it is hard to appreciate. On the last day of filming, I had this weird moment of, “This is the room that I first decided I'm going to be a filmmaker when I was seven, not that much older than Kevin is in the movie. I thought of this and dreamt of it and now it's happening and I'm here.” It felt so strange. This is my childhood home [and] parts of it look so similar to when I was little.
Seeing it on the big screen at Fantasia for the first time was interesting. Then it’s like, “Oh my god, that's the house I grew up in, in marketing material owned by AMC.” That's been weird. And people referring to it as the Skinamarink house. It looks really nothing like that in the daytime with all the modern furniture and appliances brought back into it. It doesn't feel that creepy or eerie at all. It looks and feels literally feels so completely different than it does in the movie.
Skinamarink opens in theaters on January 13, 2023.