Kyle Edward Ball’s film leaked and went viral before becoming a theatrical hit. He wished it had turned out differently.
Photo: BayView Entertainment

Some horror movies take viewers to realms of terror never before imagined. Others take everyday situations and turn them into nightmares. skin mark does a bit of both: it takes common childhood fears and creates an experience that, for many people, feels like an immersive journey into the darkest parts of their subconscious. It’s a film that gives back what you put into it, allowing viewers to project their own nightmares and anxieties onto the screen to fill in the darkness between the pixels.

skin markSnowy grain and distorted audio will sound familiar to different generations for different reasons. For older millennials and Gen-Xers, the fuzz is reminiscent of cheap VHS tapes of the same public domain cartoons playing on a living room tube TV throughout the movie — often the only light source in a scene. . For younger viewers, the film’s scares might be reminiscent of a horror prank video on TikTok – the kind that’s an uninterrupted shot of an empty room for what feels like an eternity, then a distorted face appears and makes you jump out of your skin.

skin mark was born in part on the internet. Writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s YouTube channel, Bitesized Nightmares, is full of shorts recreating the commentators’ nightmares. Ball remarked that many users’ nightmares were “eerily similar”, often depicting a scenario in which the dreamer is a small child alone in a familiar house with his dead or missing parents and a monster lurking in the shadows. Morbid stories of his sister’s work in childcare fascinated him: “A child once put a Barbie at the top of the stairs in a dollhouse and said, ‘That’s they hide the bodies. » » Inspired by these mini horror stories, the 31-year-old filmmaker decided to turn his first feature film, a “dark old house”, into a horror experience.

Shot in seven days with a three-person crew on a budget of C$15,000 at Ball’s childhood home in Edmonton, Alta. — his parents were “more than accommodating,” he says — skin mark takes place from the perspective of two young children, 4-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) and 6-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), characters loosely based on Ball and his sister. Children’s understanding of a demonic event in their home is largely limited to muffled sounds through walls and banging on floors and ceilings. All they know is that the doors and windows of their house are gone, and so are their parents.

Lots of skin markThe 100-minute runtime is comprised of long, uninterrupted static shots filmed from a child’s perspective looking down carpeted hallways towards half-open doors and the impenetrable darkness beyond. The camera lingers on blank walls, behind which we hear faint whisperings and scratchings. Shadows from the TV glint off the back of the couch, which looks huge and imposing from the perspective of the floor camera.

Ball says his goal was to create an eerie sense of foreboding, “like Satan was directing a movie and having an AI edit it. An AI would make some weird choices, like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna stand on this hallway nothing for a while.’ But unlike, say, Michael Snow, a fellow Canadian whose most famous work, Wave length (1967), is centered around a 45-minute zoom in on the wall of a single room, Ball’s hypnotic long shots are punctuated with classic leaps in the style of early internet horror videos like the infamous “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” The boredom of these lulls heightens the dread that leads to, and persists long after, brief glimpses of eldritch dread.

skin mark received a warm reaction when it premiered at midnight at the Fantasia Film Festival in late July. Shortly after, producer Jonathan Barkan saw the film’s trailer on Reddit, came on board as executive producer, and facilitated a meeting between Ball and representatives from horror streaming service Shudder. At the end of the summer, an agreement was reached to release skin mark on Halloween 2023 in a handful of theaters – maybe half a dozen art house in big cities, standard stuff – before debuting on Shudder.

Then, suddenly, everything seemed about to fall apart. At the end of October, anonymous hackers broke into the streaming platform of a European genre festival (Ball refuses to name the festival in interviews) and downloaded all the films in the lineup, including Skin mark. The pirates then uploaded the film to YouTube, ironically bringing it back to where it started. Reddit users started posting about this weird movie they found was the scariest thing they had ever seen. Words like damn and evil got thrown out. The buzz spread to TikTok, then to Twitter. Viral word-of-mouth was born.

At the time, Ball was unable to take advantage of his film’s growing notoriety. The director remembers searching Twitter for the title of his movie (as we do) in the days leading up to Halloween. “That’s actually how I found out about the leak,” he says. The discovery caused oppressive anxiety – what he describes as a “total emotional meltdown” that lasted for weeks. “I was terrified. I felt like I had won the lottery, and then it was like, Maybe you didn’t win the lottery. You will know in a few months.”

But Shudder didn’t drop Ball, or Skinamarink, despite the director’s fears. When an email finally arrived from Shudder’s vice president of programming, Sam Zimmerman, confirming that the deal was still in place, all of the “pent up physical stress just went out of my body,” Ball recalled. nine-month release schedule. It debuted on January 13 on more than 600 screens across the United States and Canada (including hundreds of AMC theaters), which, for a film as experimental as this, is almost miraculous. (In suburban Chicago he played an AMC in an almost abandoned mall – a great place to see it.)

Six days after its theatrical debut, skin mark crossed the million dollar mark at the box office. IFC Films has announced that it will expand to 800 screens, where it grossed nearly half a million extra in its second weekend. The film’s loot is particularly breathtaking when viewed alongside Ball’s low budget. It was primarily funded through online platform Seed&Spark, where Ball raised C$8,455 of the film’s $15,000 cost. (That’s 1/67th of $1 million for those who don’t have a calculator handy.) Filming at his parents’ house saved money — as did adding the child actor dialogue later recorded in overdubs rather than live on set.

The ball only used natural or incidental lighting during manufacture Skinamarink — except for the blue filters added to the camera lights used to create what he calls an “infrared” feel. The film’s blurred grain was achieved with a $100 set of Super 8 and 16mm filters individually layered over each shot. Ball considers himself the only member of the film’s post-production team: he polished the film’s look, pacing and scares for three months on his own. (He’s especially proud of his boyfriend’s reaction to the movie’s first big scare: “His spine almost jumped out of his body,” he says with a smile.)

skin mark is a test case in the benefits and dangers of viral advertising. The post-leak hype brought media attention to this otherwise obscure micro-budget film. But Ball still believes that, in different hands, the leak could have killed his first feature film. “I don’t want the filmmakers to think, Oh, we can put our movies on Pirate Bay, and that’s fine, because skin mark I got this deal with Shudder,” he said. “I think skin mark is the exception to the rule. »

He describes the experience of “walking a very thin line” between gratitude for his online fans and anxiety about whether he’s one bad step away from ending his career. He saw fan art online by people who must have pirated the film based on its release date. On the one hand, he appreciates that someone took the time to create art based on his film. On the other hand, their fandom is tied to an extremely stressful time in the filmmaker’s life. “At the end of the day, no matter how you watch the movie, if you like it, that makes me feel good,” Ball says. But “we – and when I say we, I mean me, Shudder, everyone — we would have preferred to have control over his release. Because it’s still my movie.

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