Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Skinamarink and “Heck”
2022 was the year in which Kyle Edward Ball’s name started circulating around as one of the most promising horror filmmakers when his film Skinamarink began playing in film festivals and making the rounds on TikTok, but his original short film, “Heck,” has been on YouTube since July 2020. This short essentially works as a proof of concept for Skinamarink and already displays so much of what makes that feature film so nightmarish. Like Ball’s feature, “Heck” is a dark, distorted, vague, terrifying, and eerily nostalgic film. The film follows a child after he wakes up in the middle of the night to his mother’s TV blaring, only his mother is nowhere to be found. We spend the majority of the rest of the film sitting with the boy as he kills time until his mom comes to be with him, but until then, he sits alone in his pitch black house. It’s not without its differences though. By most film’s standards, this short film is about as vague as you get, but in comparison to the 2022 movie, this version of the story has a bit more to grasp on to. For fans of Skinamarink, “Heck” is sure to scratch that same itch that the eventual feature would provide.
The Road to ‘Skinamarink’
Kyle Edward Ball grew up obsessed with movies, like most other filmmakers. He went to film school and studied everyone in the game, from Stanley Kubrick to John Waters. Eventually, he would go on to start up his own YouTube channel, Bitesized Nightmares. Here, Ball would take suggested ideas from viewers as inspiration for short films. These short films would do their best to encapsulate exactly what a nightmare feels like, specifically those from viewers’ childhoods. This series of shorts largely inspired and informed Ball’s 30-minute 2020 short film “Heck.”
“Heck” is a perfect 30-minute representation of a nightmare. It’s just long enough to invest viewers and put them under its hypnotic trance, while not being so long as to potentially alienate those watching. The film is a darkly lit (that’s an understatement), quiet, slow burn that hardly unfolds at all – and that is meant in the best way possible. “Heck” is what one might call uneventful, but that’s what’s so great about it. The film is so repetitive that, like the child in it, you feel caught in the awful limbo of the film’s world. We sit and watch TV with the child, play with toys, look around in the dark, and call for mom, only for nothing to change. We, the audience and the child, are left to just keep doing the same thing until something changes, until somebody or something shakes things up… yet, nothing happens, and it rocks. With a 30-minute runtime, this keeps things comfortable enough to where you don’t feel like you’re losing it too much waiting for something wild to happen, a characteristic that has challenged some audiences with Skinamarink.
“Heck” truly is the 30-minute prototype of Skinamarink. Making a short version of a feature is a common practice for filmmakers to take when trying to get people to invest in their film. This way, those with money can see what exactly a filmmaker is planning on bringing to the big screen, then decide whether or not the film is worth taking a gamble on financially. Seeing that Skinamarink only cost $15,000, it shouldn’t have taken too many people to get on board with Ball’s short. For those that did watch “Heck” and ended up investing, they must have been grateful to see that the finished project very much so remains in the same language as the original film.
The Similarities Between ‘Heck’ and ‘Skinamarink’
If you were to show “Heck” to someone that had both watched Skinamarink and not known that there was a short film made first in the same vein, you might be able to convince them that they are watching deleted scenes from the feature. Skinamarink carries all of its short film’s hallmark visuals. There are toys and LEGOs spread out, resting in the light of a TV on the ground. The TV plays black and white, public domain cartoons indefinitely while Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), the brother and sister characters, roam around their dark house aimlessly. These two can be heard occasionally calling out to parents, whom they cannot find. Throughout the film’s pitch black house, we occasionally find furniture and other belongings unnaturally sitting on the walls and ceiling, or doors disappearing and reappearing. We hardly ever see anyone’s actual face in either film, with Skinamarink carrying over the idea of a bizarre and disturbing character reveal from “Heck,” just not executed in the same way.
The Differences Between ‘Heck’ and ‘Skinamarink’
These two films aren’t exactly alike. As stated before, Skinamarink follows two children, Kevin and Kaylee, looking for their Mom (Jaime Hill) and Dad (Ross Paul), whereas “Heck” only follows Boy (Jeffty Ellison) as he calls out for his Mom (Courtney McNeilly). The feature also tells its story in an even more abstract fashion than its predecessor, with a larger chunk of the film just being long, static shots of different corners of the house. “Heck” is primarily told directly from Boy’s point of view, although it does take a few moments to break and show random parts of the house. There is also a vague hint at some sort of medical crisis in both films, with cancer being mentioned in “Heck,” as opposed to Kevin falling down the stairs and hitting his head being mentioned by the parents in Skinamarink. The first reveal of a face in both films is nearly identical. With “Heck,” we see Mom for the first time without her mouth, and in Skinamarink, Kaylee is seen without her eyes or mouth (in one of horror cinema’s most disturbing moments in the last decade). As for the film’s visual differences, they’re very minor. Where the short film is definitely presented in a lo-fi fashion, Ball went all out for Skinamarink. The visuals of the feature are so intentionally degraded that the images on screen seem to be swimming in distortion, like the most beaten and batter VHS tape you could ever imagine – it’s magnificent.
The biggest difference between “Heck” and Skinamarink is the passage of time. In Heck, time is being measured via the amount of “sleeps” that Boy has, as opposed to the one clear indication of time passing towards the end of Skinamarink – “572 Days.” With “Heck”‘s more prominent focus on time, the regular updates as to how long this purgatorial experience has gone on creates a sadder sort of dread than the eventual feature film version. Here, you are subjected to thinking about the amount of times that Boy wakes up in the same situation with his mother nowhere in sight. It’s a much more outright depressing film than the one to come. In Skinamarink, it just feels like you’re watching the longest, eeriest night on earth, until the title card appears towards the end. It’s never made clear when exactly any of the film’s events took place before the “572 Days” card appears, the passage of time just drops like a bomb on the audience, realizing that this is greater than just one night. Where Skinamarink is not as sad as “Heck,” it makes up for this by being so much scarier than the already incredibly disturbing short film.
Skinamarink is one of the most interesting, challenging, and best horror films to come along in quite some time. If you can lock into the bizarre atmosphere and storytelling style that Ball sets out for, it will make for an incredibly chilling yet immensely rewarding viewing experience. It’s not for everybody, but for those that dig it, there are endless conversations waiting to be had about the film’s meaning and theories on its plot. Most of all, if Skinamarink rocks your world, you ought to check out more of Ball’s nightmare-inducing vision with “Heck.” It’s a fun (loose term) short film that provides the same atmosphere and a similar story to Ball’s feature, while having enough individual elements that make it unique in and of itself.
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