When I was little, me and my younger brother would play a game where we’d stare at each other’s faces in the dark until we transformed into hideous monsters. The darkness, combined with our imaginations, would produce horrific hallucinatory results and we’d usually end up tapping out amidst screams while scrambling toward the light switch. Writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s experimental feature debut SKINAMARINK is just such a mind screw and viewer satisfaction with it will likely rely on whatever personal bugaboos they bring to the table. I’ve written before (HERE) about my traumatic experience of being “accidentally” abandoned at a beach house when I was a mere four years old so Ball’s film felt uncomfortably tailor-made for exhuming my core neuorosis. The nightmare tale involves two young siblings who wake up in the middle of the night only to find their familiar home has turned into a HOUSE OF LEAVES-style ambiguous maze complete with disappearing windows and doors, Lego minefields,public domain cartoons and finally, a plastic telephone with a goofy smile that suggests it’s somehow responsible. 

SKINAMARINK was not playing nearby so I had to go far outside my comfort zone to see it on a rainy night in a funky theater that seemed to have closed decades ago. It was quite the memorable experience, but I would probably decline undergoing it again. This is a film that feels more like a spell than anything else; it’s esoteric as all get out and cryptic on a level that seems more at home in an art gallery than a multiplex. I’m going to assume that many viewers will find this sneaky jaunt excruciatingly boring as the lion’s share of the flick consists of vague, off-kilter shots of the ceiling and long dives into a squirmy, grainy amorphous darkness. It’s quite like being hypnotized into a trance-like state and then being periodically slapped into sobriety by cymbal crashes. Again, it’s most definitely not for everyone and even though it certainly had my number, I’m not sure it was even for me. On the other hand, there are a couple of moments that rattled my psyche in ways that a more conventional horror film could never dream of and I can’t have anything but respect for that. Ultimately, SKINAMARINK is an original, singular horror experience but whether that experience is fascinating and frightening or absolutely aggravating may depend entirely on the beholder. I personally rather dug it as a challenging and uncomfortable walk down creepy memory lane.

My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on The Twilight Zone

It’s been more than a week since the ball dropped, and I think I’ve finally heard the last of the muffled marching band that’s traipsed its way through my skull since Ryan Seacrest and a skin full of liquor ushered in the new year. In lieu of Tylenol and bottled water, I medicated myself with the annual cable TV marathon of The Twilight Zone, which didn’t allow me to get the rest that I needed because I was glued to those supernatural, suspenseful, and otherwise unsettling stories. And perhaps because of the new year, I’m reflecting on the first episode I’d ever seen of the classic television series: “Probe 7, Over and Out,” thinking about how it changed my understanding of Storytelling forever.

My first journey into the Twilight Zone was through the 1983 anthology film, but that particular venture – which I took too many times to count – was frequently in broad daylight. The movie frequently screened on cable in the middle of the day, when its frights couldn’t find me watching from the family room floor. But one Saturday night at the age of 10, I stayed up later than I should have, having been assured that I didn’t have to attend Sunday school the following morning. It was a rare treat. The Bible stories seemed both limited in quantity and endless in their telling, and a reprieve would be a relief. Without Sunday school to whisk me to bed early, that night would be special. The house was dark. Everyone had gone to bed for the night. As I flipped channels, the TV suddenly flickered with tones of black and white – that door performing somersaults in the cosmos, that house window inexplicably shattering, that slowly blinking staring eye. I’d been transported to a Twilight Zone the likes of which I’d never seen before, seduced by the show’s musical introduction and the inimitable voice of Rod Serling.

In comparison to many others, this episode isn’t the perfect representation of what the weekly TV could accomplish, but this particular installment tells the story of Adam Cook (Richard Basehart), an astronaut who crash lands on a lush alien planet. While he nurses his wounds, which include a broken arm and a bruised rib, radio transmissions alert him that his home planet will soon be destroyed by its two governing bodies, long entrenched in war. Without a home to return to and with a foreign land to call home, Cook discovers only one other living creature, a woman who calls herself Eve (Antoinette Bower). After some initial suspicion of one another, the two settle upon calling this otherworldly planet “Earth” and determine to build a life there together.

The religious subtext wasn’t lost on me, even if I didn’t come from a religious family. The irony that I was watching a creation story late on a Saturday night and that I would be absent from Sunday school the next morning, however, would take time for me to understand. And what made the program itself frightening was not its dramatic action. Aside from some moody atmosphere, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and a brief physical confrontation, “Probe 7, Over and Out” possesses little of the terror synonymous with The Twilight Zone.

What made the episode so compelling to me as a child was how it seemed to address the human condition on such a unique stage of science fiction and suspense. “He’s a frightened breed,” Cook tells himself of humanity, after the terrified Eve has fled the comfort of his company. “He’s a very frightened breed.” At that age, I understood the evil of racism and the terror of growing old and even more from the full color anthology film of the same name, but perhaps the more ancient black and white presentation of this television show made its messaging more disarming to me. Perhaps it was the absence of color on the screen and the absence of light in the family room. And it may have had everything to do with the program’s bravery in taking a story so hallowed on Sunday mornings and turning it into a contemporary narrative infused with trepidation, distrust, and fear, all of which the world felt daily in some measure. I didn’t understand at that age that stories could do something like that: so irreverent, so manipulative, so revolutionary. What would be next, I asked myself: beloved fairy tales infused with moral compasses? Famous children’s story characters entertaining dark urges? Origin stories that humanized the great villains of literature? Those questions were as invigorating to me as they were frightening, because their answers lie somewhere in the unknown.

But as a young viewer, I was a little more than intrigued by the potential future of storytelling after that night, not only because I was such a lover of storytelling but also because I suddenly saw my contribution to storytelling rather unleashed, unbridled – like Adam on a distant planet: born anew to create a story that no one’s quite heard like that before. And for a 10-year-old just then learning to understand the natural rules of narrative, The Twilight Zone represented a passport by which to bypass a number of the layovers that I would have felt obligated to make before venturing into this new world of story on my own.

And, of course, I’d see more episodes of The Twilight Zone that would be more terrifying than this one, certainly more inspirational to the young creator lurking within me.

And some of them wouldn’t let me get the rest that I needed.

And none of them were meant to.

My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on Dracula (’31)

He lived down the street from me, and we weren’t really friends. We were merely familiar faces on the bus ride to school and in the classroom, the two kids who periodically discovered each other at the local jungle gym. Perhaps he lived too close for comfort for me as I navigated the 5th grade – he was a bully at school who hadn’t yet targeted me, and I sensed it was always a matter of time – but Bryan (is what we’ll call him) announced to no one in particular as we played at the playground that Friday afternoon that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula would air on a local network at midnight that night. I didn’t know what Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was any more than I knew what TV looked like at midnight. As we took that cyclical ride on the merry-go-round, he asked me if I would be tuning in.

My vocabulary with horror was, then, very limited. I knew Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man, and I felt sorry for him. Despite his appearance, Talbot was a victim of circumstance, hardly the monster that would inspire nightmares. But Dracula – even with no knowledge of the character, the novel, or the film – was intrinsically haunting. Had you never seen the 1931 film, you were at least familiar with the cloaked figure bidding you welcome into his castle, eerily celebrating the howling wolves in the distance. None of us have seen the Devil in person either, but we still fear him. I felt the same way about Dracula.

I told Bryan I would be watching, and as I headed for home, I heard him yell that I was probably too scared to see it. I also heard him yell to me that my parents probably wouldn’t let me stay up that late anyway. Mind you: we weren’t friends. And he was wrong on both counts. I wasn’t too scared to tune in; I was, however, incapable of staying awake in front of the TV. I’d fallen asleep before the movie aired that night; luckily, the same station would air the movie again at 11 a.m. on Saturday. I was relieved that I could return to school on Monday, ready to tell Bryan that I’d faced those fears, even if I’d done so in broad daylight. But a family event would keep me away from the television that day, so my dad’s solution was to commit the screening to a VHS tape – that way, I could watch it whenever, even with him. And, consequently, after the sun had gone down. And, as everyone knows, you’re only the potential victim of a vampire once the sun has gone down.

But again I went to bed that night without having seen the movie. I claimed to be too tired, despite my dad’s insistence that we stay up and watch it. Like a silver bullet, the screening was dodged once more. I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Bryan was certain to quiz me on Monday morning, so I couldn’t run from the film forever.

Instead, I watched Dracula a little after noon that Sunday. I didn’t procrastinate, wanting to see the picture as early as possible so that it was as far removed from my bedtime as it could be, so I didn’t wait for the company of my father. I was on a mortal mission for my soul, and I couldn’t have this film following me into my dreams. Unfortunately, I’d find that the matinee screening wouldn’t help. It turns out that Lugosi’s Dracula isn’t dependent upon trivialities such as darkness or ambient night sounds to inspire fear. As the Count, Dracula is far more menacing, staring back in silence than we sometimes recall, and director Tod Browning isn’t frightened of allowing the film to take shape in absolute quiet, whether for a few seconds or for entire minutes. Raised on the films of Lucas and Spielberg and Saturday morning cartoons, I knew the value of color: the bright lights and the darkest blacks, but Dracula seemed reared on a different palette altogether, robbing its black and white scenes of any color, of any possibility for hope. There was only dark and “darker.” Tonally, Dracula possesses two moods: “dangerous” and “deadly,” and if the “dangerous” doesn’t terrify you, the “deadly” is in close pursuit at all times. The film, economically paced at a little more than an hour, engorges the production with more atmosphere than one sees in most horror films today, and a day with Dracula was turning into a precarious venture at the very least. But it was Dracula’s unrelenting stare – coupled with that silence and those shadows from before – that I would need to shove into the catacombs of my mind before bedtime, no later than nine that night. His stare seemed to discover me, watching from the safety of my home, in those cinematic close-ups. His stares promised that Dracula knew where to find me at all times.

And yet I felt pretty good as I brushed my teeth that night, ready to share with Bryan how I’d stared into the face of the Prince of Darkness and returned to school on Monday anyway, no worse for the wear. I’d filled the rest of my day with Fleischer Superman cartoons and some G.I. Joe battles on my bedroom floor to erase Dracula from my memory, and I would have enjoyed a peaceful rest that night had it not been for my dad’s fateful reminder.

“Did you watch Dracula today?” he’d asked me. “What did you think of it?”

I can’t really recall the nature of my review before I went to bed – alone, in the dark – that night. All I could think about was Dracula’s ominous stare, its ability to find me in the family TV room, its assurance that it knew where to find me at any time from behind the television set glass.

And perhaps that was still a little too close for comfort for me.

Barbarian (2022)

Late one night during a raging storm, Tess Marshall (a relatable Georgina Campbell) arrives at the small house she rented for the weekend only to find the key missing from the lock box outside. She sees light and a figure inside so understandably exasperated; she bangs on the door, which is answered by an odd man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, inadvertently carrying the baggage of previously portraying a psychotic killer clown). It turns out the domicile was accidentally rented to two parties for the same weekend! Since it’s raining cats and dogs and they just happen to be in the most dilapidated and depressing area of Detroit, the two form an awkward alliance and agree to share the place together. What could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. Everything you could imagine and a dozen things your mind could never comprehend can go wrong.

I’m not going to be the one to spoil this film’s surprises. Nope, I knew nothing about it going in and I’m a hundred percent sure that’s the best way to see it. (Now whispering) I will say, writer/director Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN absolutely feels like being trapped in a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. There’s this horrible force that keeps pushing you forward against your better judgment as you go deeper and deeper and sense that where you came from is disintegrating behind you. There is nobody to help, in fact, your every plea for assistance is misconstrued and digs your grave deeper. Every choice you make to fix the situation backfires and makes things worse. You witness the darkest heartlessness of humanity and the unfathomable pain and despair that it fosters. There are no happy endings here, just inevitable decay and rot. It’s all so outlandish it can’t possibly be real but it’s happening all the same. You have a few glimmers of light, a few hopes for escape but you squander them trying to do that right thing for people you have no idea don’t deserve it. Something primal makes you want to cry out for your mother and that may be the biggest mistake of all. BARBARIAN is an ordeal. It can be furiously frustrating at times when the most backward choices are made but I think that just adds to the anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness. It’s a bad dream of a movie and like many bad dreams, it can’t help being as fascinating as it is thrilling.