For five years, Canadian filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball’s YouTube channel “Bite-Sized Nightmares” has been showcasing shorts full of fuzzy video, distorted sound, and an emphasis on creepy vibes rather than storytelling. His debut feature Skinamarink became an unlikely cult hit at Fantasia last summer, especially when a copy leaked to torrent networks. The buzz it has received may surprise many people once they actually see it, because not only is it far from a conventional horror film, it’s barely a narrative. Ball is steeped both in YouTube analog horror and avant-garde cinema.
Rather than emphasizing narrative, Skinamarink evokes the consciousness of Kevin (Lucas Paul), a terrified four-year-old boy roaming around a house in the middle of the night. He and his sister discover that their parents have disappeared, while the home’s geography has been rearranged, eliminating doors and windows. On a TV, cartoons from the 1930s play, as their soundtracks overlay the entire film, filtered through layers of fuzz. Gradually, the mood of dread gets more and more explicit until the presence of a malevolent entity cannot be denied.
Yet Skinamarink finds terror in our inability to understand our own environment, denying the spectator command over it. Its scares come from sharing Kevin’s low-angle vision and wondering if those blurry images and muffled sounds are real. Although set in 1995, it feels like something new, revolving around a vague but very real sense of a ghost in the machine and bridging experimental cinema and horror. Opening theaters around the country today, it will stream on Shudder later this year.
The Film Stage: The film is steeped in media right before the Internet became mainstream. What attracts you to analog horror?
Kyle Edward Ball: Just the feeling of it. Movies keep getting higher-resolution, cleaner, and more pristine. I’ve always loved old movies because they do things newer movies don’t—not necessarily with themes but with grain and sound. Even when I was a little kid I thought, “How come they don’t make old movies anymore?” in the sense of, “Why don’t they make Technicolor ‘50s movies?” As I grew up, after this whole analog horror thing started, I saw other people felt the same way. I thought, “Why don’t I make a movie from the ‘70s but make it today?”
The film was shot in just a week, but you must have spent a lot of time on post-production, both for image and sound (which was entirely dubbed afterward).
Post-production lasted about four months. Usually, when it drags on, it’s for reasons like not having enough footage or editing around problems. I had more than enough footage—I had all the audio I wanted; I had all the building blocks—but the look and feel I wanted to reproduce took more time to play with to get it right. I had a lot of fun editing it and was able to write and direct it a third time. Finally I had all the pieces of a feature, so why not take my time? It dragged on because I wanted to keep directing it over and over.
Was a separate score created for the cartoons, or was the music attached to that public domain footage?
It’s just music from the cartoons playing on the TV. There were a few points where I had fun playing with that. At one point the actual music does not match the cartoons, but I thought it could work.
From the very first shorts on your YouTube channel, made five years ago, you can see a path right into Skinamarink. There’s the same kind of imagery, low camera angles, shooting into dark walls. Having spent so much time on that aesthetic, do you plan to do something much different for your second feature?
I went to film school and didn’t do that much for a while. I started the YouTube channel when I was about 25. Through that I learned what my strengths and weaknesses were and the style I wanted to recreate. Through several steps that led into Skinamarink. I still want to play within those confines, but I might branch out a little bit. I might be so bold as to show people’s faces, or maybe a scene with people talking on camera. That style is still there to stay. I’m not going to go in a wildly different direction, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, where it’s all close-ups.
The influences on Skinamarink are much different from your typical horror film. It’s been compared a lot to Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House. There’s been a certain overlap between avant-garde cinema and horror that your film really brings out. How much are you interested in experimental film?
I love it. When I was an edgy teenager, I really leaned into John Waters, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren. At a video store that no longer exists, I found a tape of the Best of the New York Underground Film Festival from 1993 or ’94. I leaned into doing experimental stuff because people are more willing to watch it than they get credit for if the film makes it worth their while. Eraserhead, which is a very experimental movie, still has humor, mystery, and heart. When I still didn’t have a distributor for Skinamarink, I was talking with several. I had a long conversation with one, who I won’t name, that said,“Kyle, experimental cinema is dead. You made a good movie for the early ‘90s, but I don’t think anyone would watch it now.” He missed that experimental features may not be thriving now, but shorts are thriving on a place called YouTube. In a lot of ways, people are experimenting with the moving image now more than ever. It was a matter of time before people started taking those experiments and tried transitioning into a feature film.
When you started your YouTube channel, did you find a sense of community with people doing similar work or things like ARGs [alternate reality games, such as the apocalyptic Local 58]?
I was kind of a walled garden. I didn’t have a lot of people reach out to me, although I watched some of that stuff. With a handful of exceptions, other content creators didn’t contact me, but I think a lot of it was that my channel was so small that I wasn’t really brought into the community. I don’t mean that as a criticism. A small channel doesn’t get picked up by the algorithm, so YouTubers who might have liked it just never learned about it. I was basically this tiny corner of a giant portion of the Internet. I did see my subscribers reference ARGs and other YouTube videos.
The biggest criticism I’ve seen of Skinamarink has been the idea that it didn’t need to be a feature. It’s not a particularly long one, but on the other hand, it’s not merely 65 minutes. Since you’ve been working with these ideas for years, did you always plan to make this as a feature-length film?
There’s actually a rougher cut that’s 20 minutes longer. Art is subjective, and maybe from their point of view it would be better as a short. But I made a proof-of-concept short, Heck, and a lot of people commented that they’d like to see me do a feature-length movie. Even a handful said “This would be neat to see as a feature.” Sometimes you can’t win either way. I understand what people are saying—because it’s a fairly sparse movie—but I think it still holds up as a feature.
This film will be released in movie theaters. Personally, I saw it on my laptop and enjoyed it, but I can tell what a different experience it’d be in the theater. In the long run, most of its audience will probably be on Shudder. Do you think about the pros and cons and differences of those various ways of seeing it?
I think a lot of horror movies work well in both media. When The Blair Witch Project came out, people talked about how visceral the theatrical experience was, but I’ve only seen it at home. Sometimes that’s not as good, but sometimes it’s even better. There’s nothing greater than watching a great horror movie alone at home at 3 a.m. Sometimes watching a movie on a laptop can be a different experience, because compression will hide things and accentuate other images.
Skinamarink is now in wide release.