One of the first big movies of 2023 is actually a movie that was released in 2022. Skinamarink is a new horror movie that began to gain attention throughout the second half of 2022 after screening at a few select film festivals, with its unique take on the horror genre captivating those who saw it. The excitement around the movie continued to build and has since hit new levels in January 2023, thanks to a limited theatrical run and the news that it will begin streaming on Shudder in February 2023.
Its emergence as a surprise horror hit has given further exposure to the sub-genre of experimental horror. Skinamarink is an excellent example of how to make an engaging and unnerving horror film in a non-traditional manner, but it’s far from the first horror movie to incorporate experimental elements in its production. The unknown and unexplainable can be scary, and the following films demonstrate this well, emphasizing atmosphere, visuals, and a general sense of uneasiness over an easily understandable plot.
1 ‘Skinamarink’ (2022)
It’s hard to work out exactly what Skinamarink is about, even after watching it and mulling it over in the days that follow. It takes place inside a strange house, seemingly following children who are stuck inside and witness numerous (and strange) sights and sounds over an undeterminable period of time. Characters don’t often appear in frame, though, and what little dialogue there is can be hard to make out.
It all makes for a film that creates a strong emotional reaction, even if it’s hard to tell what exactly you’ve seen. It taps into childhood fears, from a time when the world can be an extra dark, scary, and confusing place, and though its pacing can be very slow, it does all build to an effectively terrifying final act. It’s not a movie for everyone, but it’s undeniably ambitious and uniquely atmospheric.
2 ‘Heck’ (2020)
Kyle Edward Ball, the director of Skinamarink, explored the world of analog horror two years earlier than his 2022 feature with his half-hour short film from 2020, simply called Heck. The premise is similar to Skinamarink, though with a shorter runtime and an even more experimental feel, it’s very easy to watch both and still get new feelings (and scares) from each.
It’s more widely available than Skinamarink, as it’s been uploaded to Ball’s YouTube channel and can be watched there for free. Those who don’t find Heck scary are unlikely to enjoy and/or find Skinamarink scary, making it a perfect proof-of-concept short film for the subsequent feature film, which expands on some of the ideas and imagery present in Heck and replicates a similar style of presentation.
3 ‘The Wolf House’ (2018)
The Wolf House would have to be one of the darkest and most unnerving fairytale films of all time. It follows a young woman who escapes from a cult, hiding out in an isolated house in a forest which proves to be just as threatening and terrifying as the compound she escaped.
The terror of The Wolf House comes from the way it’s animated: a thrilling blend of 2D hand-drawn animation and 3D stop-motion animation, all done in and around “live-action” sets which all serve to create a nightmarish effect. Beyond the set-up of the main character escaping, it’s not always easy to work out what the narrative is, but the film leaves a tremendous emotional and psychological impact because of its presentation, meaning a direct narrative through line doesn’t feel necessary to the experience.
4 ‘Antichrist’ (2009)
Lars Von Trier is no stranger to traumatizing those who dare to watch his movies, with Antichrist arguably being the film of his with the most horror tropes. There’s not even dark comedy here to somewhat balance out the horrific stuff (even something as horrifying as 2018’s The House That Jack Built had some very dark humor), with its narrative instead focusing on two grieving parents whose attempts to heal emotionally and rekindle their relationship in an isolated cabin goes south very fast.
From some instances of very graphic violence to a terrifying (and infamous) talking fox, Antichrist largely sacrifices narrative and replaces it with a constant flow of surreal, nightmarish sequences. It’s certainly a hard movie to enjoy (and might even be difficult to follow), but ultimately, it’s not an easy movie to forget once watched.
5 ‘Begotten’ (1989)
It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to discussing Begotten, and what it may or may not be about. It’s an extremely low-budget horror film with grainy visuals and no dialogue, and while it’s broadly discernable as a dark take on the creation myth, beyond that, much of it’s up to viewers’ interpretations.
A viewer’s appreciation of Begotten will depend on whether they find the images and overall tone intoxicating or boring. Some may be immersed in the horrific and often incomprehensible world it creates, while others may find that the relatively brief runtime of 72 minutes feels far longer. It’s experimental horror in every sense of the term, and has strongly divided viewers who’ve stumbled across it for over 30 years now.
6 ‘Saint Maud’ (2019)
While Saint Maud might have more of a narrative than most experimental horror movies, there’s still a great deal about it that’s mysterious and difficult to decipher. It’s a psychological drama/horror movie about a young nurse who begins to care for an older patient after a recent turn to God but finds her mind unraveling throughout the film for a variety of reasons.
Some of these reasons are revealed to viewers very slowly, and some things aren’t exactly revealed or explained at all. This arguably adds to the uneasiness of the film and the power of its horror, and it effectively works as a slow-burn – and quite traumatic – horror movie that’s worth sticking with to its bold conclusion.
7 ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (1989)
Arguably the pinnacle of sci-fi/horror done on an extremely low budget, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a cult film that continues to impress – and disturb – viewers to this very day. It has a simple yet bizarre body horror premise, following a man whose life is drastically changed when he finds himself the subject of a mysterious curse that slowly turns his body parts into iron.
It should go without saying, but it definitely shouldn’t be mixed up with any of the MCU films featuring a similarly named character. The story of this Iron Man is instead a loud, noisy, and frequently nauseating one, but it’s hard not to appreciate the brazen presentation, and how effectively the film executes its terrifying special effects sequences on a small budget.
8 ‘House’ (1977)
House takes a simple premise and does explosively unpredictable things with it for 88 minutes of gleeful cinematic chaos. It follows a group of girls who go to stay in a house as a presumably low-key vacation, but soon find the place to be filled with strange, otherworldly phenomena.
To say much more than that would not only ruin the film’s surprises but also just prove plain difficult to do. House operates on a seemingly alien set of rules, with real-world logic and consistency thrown out the window and replace with surreal, comedic horror and over-the-top mayhem. It’s an experience like no other, and a classic cult horror movie (even if it’s ultimately funnier than it is truly scary).
9 ‘My House Walk-Through’ (2016)
In just 12 minutes, the surreal short film titled My House Walk-Through offers more nightmarish imagery and genuine scares than most feature-length horror movies could ever hope to achieve. The brief runtime feels eternal, as the film depicts an unseen narrator walking through and filming a seemingly unending series of hallways in his house, with each proving creepier and more hellish than the last.
It may not sound terrifying on paper, but the experience of watching it is visceral and unbearably tense. It instantly conjures up a feeling of dread that continues (and gets more intense) as the short film goes on, making this an expertly made (and bite-sized) piece of experimental horror.
10 ‘Eraserhead’ (1977)
Few directors can do surreal horror as well as David Lynch, and Eraserhead might be the most direct cinematic nightmare he’s ever made. It follows a young man who lives in a strange world, struggles with making his girlfriend happy, and finds himself tormented by his newly born child, who has an inhuman appearance.
It’s more a nightmare put to celluloid than a three-act story, though it’s easy to read this horror film as being about the struggles of parenthood and living as a young adult. In the 45+ years since Eraserhead’s release, little else compares to it.