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The horror movie Skinamarink, directed by Edmonton film maker Kyle Edward Ball, has become a sensation online since its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival this past July. The film follows two children who wake up one night to find their parents missing and their home missing its doors and windows.Courtesy of BayView Entertainment

For the past few months, the word “Skinamarink” has been passed along in online film circles like a secret code word, or a provocative dare.

The most micro-budget of micro-budgeted movies – it cost just $15,000 to make – the new Canadian horror film directed by Edmonton’s Kyle Edward Ball enjoyed a warm reception when it made its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival this past July. The fest’s cult-primed audiences embraced its highly experimental haunted-house energy, as the film follows two young children who wake up one night to find their parents missing and their home suddenly absent its doors and windows.

Filmed with little dialogue, almost no shots of any performers’ faces and most of the action shrouded in darkness, the film plays like a Michael Snow video-art installation projected from the ninth circle of hell, if Satan were embodied by David Lynch, whose Eraserhead looms large as an influence. (And, no, the film has nothing to do with the eponymous children’s song by Sharon, Lois & Bram.)

Ball’s inventive, uncompromising vision for Skinamarink made such a strong impression at Fantasia that the film was quickly picked up by horror streaming giant Shudder, which planned to give it a small theatrical release around Halloween 2023 before making it available digitally. But then hackers got ahold of a digital copy after the film was programmed for another virtual festival, and it quickly spread through back-channel torrents and piracy sites. Suddenly, the horror of Skinamarink became Ball’s very own bad dream.

“When it first happened, it was a nightmare,” the 31-year-old filmmaker said in an interview. “I was on this roller coaster since Fantasia, and then it crashed. But the people at Shudder did everything they could to support it. But the first few weeks of it, yeah, I was in total meltdown mode.”

Set in 1995, Skinamarink was filmed with little dialogue, almost no shots of the performers’ faces and most of the action shrouded in darkness, looking as though it had been filmed on domestic camcorders.Courtesy of BayView Entertainment

The leak had a drip of irony to it, though. Skinamarink is, in many ways, a movie that the internet created, its genesis born equally from Ball’s YouTube channel “Bitesized Nightmares” and the conversations that he had in such Reddit forums as Liminal Space and Weirdcore, where all manner of creepy memes, urban legends and nightmares are discussed. It makes a cruel kind of sense that Ball’s film should be returned, however unintentionally, to the darker online corners that inspired it.

“In a lot of weird ways, this is the movie that Reddit made,” the director admits. “I’ve been on those forums since 2016 and now I’m there all the time. My mom is on Reddit, too. It’s the only social media that she’s on, which might be a good thing. I envy her.”

The excitable online chatter following the film’s leak also helped boost Skinamarink’s word-of-mouth profile. Suddenly, the film was a TikTok, YouTube and Twitter sensation, with users eager to proclaim that the ultra-low-fi movie was the scariest thing that they had ever seen – an almost forbidden piece of underground cinema that was like a real-life version of the VHS tape at the heart of The Ring.

“People have asked me if I thought that the movie’s legitimate release has been buffered by the piracy, and it’s hard to tell, right? I have to choose my words carefully because this movie might be the exception instead of the rule where other films get leaked it destroys the theatrical or streaming release,” Ball says. “I don’t want to say that it helped, because I don’t 100 per cent know if that’s the case. All I’ll say is that I think it was a hard thing to deal with at the moment, but now that the movie has had so much success, I’ve made peace with it. Anyone who has watched the movie, regardless of by what means, if you enjoyed it, thank you.”

After the leak, Shudder accelerated Skinamarink’s release plan and last month, rather improbably, Ball’s tiny film – which was shot over the course of just seven days in his parents’ home – opened on more than 600 screens across North America, so far earning $1.5-million, or 100 times its original budget, sliding into Blair Witch Project territory. In Canada, the film has even expanded from the indie- and rep-cinema circuit to the major chains, with Cineplex adding Skinamarink to its landmark downtown Toronto multiplex, the Scotiabank, last week. (It will be available to stream on Shudder starting this weekend.)

Skinamarink was filmed on a micro budget of $15,000, but has gone on to open on more than 600 screens across North America and earned $1.5-million so far.Courtesy of BayView Entertainment

The film is also something of a backward Canadian film industry success story. Unlike the majority of features produced in this country, Skinmarink was made entirely without public funds: no Telefilm, no Canada Media Fund, no arts councils. Not that Ball didn’t try to go that route initially.

“We did apply for government grants at the beginning, and didn’t get any of them, but the great thing about those applications is you have to provide all this documentation about the production and process, which fits like a glove onto a crowdfund campaign,” Ball says, noting that a little more than half of the film’s budget was raised through the online platform Seed & Spark, with the rest coming from friends and family.

“I think this movie may have been just as hard to make in the U.S. as it was to make here, because even if America did have a grant system similar to Canada, who knows if it would have gotten approved there,” the filmmaker adds. “And you could argue the inverse, that this movie would have been harder to make in the American system. We made such a weird movie in such a different way that it’s hard to say.”

Right now, Ball is mulling his next project while both fielding and fending off audience reactions. While Skinamarink comes equipped with a meme-friendly marketing plan – its poster evokes the grindhouse thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with a tagline (“In this house …”) that deliberately echoes a popular Twitter joke template – it is also an intensely unique film that not all moviegoers, even adventurous horror fans, might latch onto. There are long and static takes, dialogue so whisper-soft that it necessitates subtitles and no clear narrative answers as to just what is happening to the two children stuck inside their home, both of whom are put through extremely traumatic incidents.

Theories abound online – is the mother possessed, or maybe this is all a dream that one of the kids is experiencing while stuck in a coma – and Ball admits to reading them all.

“Everyone’s theory is correct and also no one’s theory is incorrect,” he says. “It’s not my movie any more, it’s yours. And I don’t even know the answer to some questions in the movie. There were parts when I was writing the script that I just don’t know why I wrote that. I felt like I was channelling something, or someone.”