Sunday, March 19, 2023

Next of Kin (1982)

... aka: Akumu no keifu (Genealogy of Nightmares)
... aka: Angustia a Flor de Piel (Anguish to Flower of Skin) (?)
... aka: Fatal Terror
... aka: Hell House
... aka: Mais Próximo do Terror (Closer to Terror)
... aka: Montclare - Erbe des Grauens (Montclare: Legacy of Horror)
... aka: Montclare - Haus der Schreie (Montclare: House of Screams)
... aka: Ondskapens hus (House of Evil)
... aka: Paluu Menneeseen (Back to the Past)

Directed by:
Tony Williams

In Australia, Next of Kin (an Aussie / New Zealand co-production) came and went in theaters without much fanfare or critical acknowledgment and was likewise mostly ignored on the global home video market despite being released in dozens of countries. Not even a Best Editing nod for Max Lemon from the Australian Film Institute, nor Williams winning a Best Director award at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival in 1982 (even beating out Sam Raimi for The Evil Dead in the process!), nor it winning a Special Mention award at Mystfest in Italy in 1983, nor it receiving a cover story by the widely-read Aussie film mag Cinema Papers, seemed to help this film's plight any. I used to own tons of horror reference books and magazines back in the day and don't recall any of the reviews for this film being particularly glowing.

However, a funny thing happened decades later: It was one of many titles highlighted in Mark Hartley's Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) documentary, which featured Quentin Tarantino drawing comparisons between it and The Shining, calling it one of his three favorite Aussie films of all time and otherwise singing its praises. Then, as it so often happens with films that receive the QT stamp of approval, many folks started running around championing the film as some kind of unheralded forgotten classic. While I find Tarantino being treated as the ultimate, infallible, final authority on all horror and cult movies a bit ridiculous and tiresome, I remain intrigued by how one man's opinion somehow manages to completely alter initial perceptions and transform a film that had received a lukewarm reception up until the chosen one's re-appraisal into a sudden classic. That's some Jim Jones style shit right there!

You know what's really fascinating to ponder? Granted this is as good as people are now saying it is, how could it have possibly fallen between the cracks like it did and stay there for decades without anyone ever saying anything about it? I'd understand if it was nearly impossible to get your hands on all those years, but it wasn't. Despite what revisionist reviews are now claiming, it still wasn't. I just glanced at the opening paragraph of an essay on the film where the author makes the claim that it wasn't "given the chance back in the day" due to it "languishing in obscurity," which I find an interesting comment directed toward a movie that was widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America and elsewhere. Literally millions of people viewed this film prior to Tarantino's endorsement and it hadn't managed to build up any kind of reputation whatsoever in all that time. 

I can't help it, this kind of stuff automatically brings out the cynic / skeptic in me, yet I was hoping this would at least somewhat live up to the hype. Instead, it ended up becoming my biggest disappointment of the year thus far. But, hey, the year's still young!


Following her mother's passing, Linda Stevens (Jacki Kerin) returns to her tiny home town in central Victoria for the first time in many years to take possession of the family mansion, which has been converted over to a elderly care facility called Montclare Retirement Home. Though she has the expertise of veteran nurse Connie (Gerda Nicolson), who practically ran the place by herself when the mother grew ill, at her disposal, it's still a big responsibility to take on for a 24-year-old. Linda isn't quite sure just what to do; sell the place or make it her permanent home / job. Seeing how it's been in her family for generations and she has already-established relationships with some of the staff and patients, there's a definite pressure to keep it. For the time being she'll stay, but doesn't want any new residents brought in on the chance she changes her mind. Staying also gives her a chance to rummage through her late mother's belongings, which include an old diary that she starts thumbing through page by page every night.

Since she's back, Linda decides to reconnect with an old fling named Barney (a wasted John Jarratt, of later Wolf Creek fame), who seems mostly interested in late night wham bam specials, drinking and partying, which probably also explains why he doesn't have his driver's license and has to be chauffeured around everywhere by a woman named Carol (Debra Lawrance), whom he appears to be dating. Also showing an interest in her is the more mysterious Kelvin (Robert Ratti), the son of one of the residents, Mrs. Ryan (Bernadette Gibson), who seems to be following her around.

There's a certain mystery surrounding Linda's mother's death, with chief physician Dr. Barton (Alex Scott) claiming that anxiety and high stress over money and the future of the facility led to her untimely passing. Still, no clear cause of death is offered up to her when she asks, and the doctor and Connie seem to be hiding things from her. Even stranger still, she has an Aunt Rita whose whereabouts are unknown. Linda is told by some of her acquaintances that she's passed away but that she's still alive by others. Barton's explanation is that she became dangerously mentally ill, was sent to live in an asylum and died there.

The entire first hour of this film deals almost exclusively with faintly odd, seemingly minor things that may or may not be supernatural / ghostly in origin, like windows being left open, lights going out, taps being left running, strange noises, etc., plus long time resident Lance (Charles McCallum) going to get in his bath and discovering the bloated corpse of another resident; the shock of which gives him a minor stroke. Linda notices a shadowed figure standing around watching her on several occasions and is haunted by slow-motion flashbacks / nightmares involving a little girl holding a red ball, which turn out to be her as a 4-year-old discovering, you guessed it, another drowned body in the bath. Seems there was an epidemic of similar deaths years earlier.

When it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking, at least the aesthetic and sonic ones, this is strong on many fronts. There's really smooth Steadicam work and clever shots throughout courtesy of Gary Hansen, an interesting synth score from Klaus Schulze, who also did the memorable score for Angst (1983), effective sound design, decent art direction, moody lighting, etc. So at least you know you're in professional hands and this looks and sounds good most of the time. But technical proficiency is only part of the battle. We the audience need to feel something, which is where this almost completely fell flat for me.

The screenplay, co-written by the director and Michael Heath, is one filled with plot points that are often only partially explained, if they're explained at all, one where we're never quite sure if things are fantastical or conspiratorial and one where all of the principal characters behave in a secretive, suspicious manner, which sometimes makes sense in regards to the plot and sometimes doesn't and is simply used as a means to distract. That's all by design in an obvious attempt to create an air of distrust and paranoia around our heroine, but what's lacking here is a central focus of interest to bounce all of this stuff off of. Instead we're left with a bunch of cold, stiff, vague, lifeless and one-dimensional personality voids and a cast, many of whom are obviously talented, saddled with a script that refuses to humanize any of the characters they're playing because doing so would jeopardize the script's stubborn ambiguity.

Comparisons to Kubrick's previously-mentioned film are wishful thinking at best and, quite frankly, outright misleading at worst. While there are a couple of vague similarities, this isn't nearly as visually accomplished nor is it the least bit shocking, creepy or scary. I've also seen this compared to the works of Argento, Bava and Polanski which, again, are massive exaggerations. While this is stylish at times, it's nowhere near as stylized (or color-saturated) as the films of Bava or Argento. Similarities are mostly the director stealing imagery from their films, like the little girl with the ball (Kill Baby... Kill!) and the foot suddenly hitting a submerged corpse (Inferno). As far as Polanski is concerned, he could make ambiguous, multi-layered thrillers with not only complete precision but also with fully-realized characters, which is not at all what we get here.

The elder-heavy supporting cast turns out to be an apt one as the only thing that moves around slower than they do is this film's pacing. The term "slow burn" gets thrown around a lot these days to describe a film that's methodically sedate and restrained for the duration as a build up to surprise revelations near the end. The "slow" portion should be building up plot intrigue, suspense, atmosphere, characterization and / or tension until the release, but this doesn't quite hit the mark on any of these fronts. In fact, the content in the build portion is so muddled, bland and uninteresting that by the time action, plot twists and reveals come flying fast during the last 20 minutes, many people will have stopped caring. As for those final 20 minutes, while they're livelier and more entertaining than the preceding hour+, there's really nothing there most horror fans haven't seen elsewhere. Well, except for the sugar cube pyramid. That part was pretty sweet.

Though I'm not sure if this ever played in American theaters in the 80s or not, there were at least two VHS releases, from Media and Virgin Vision, and this was very much a video store staple here in the U.S. for decades. Recently, many companies have jumped at the chance to give it a restored Blu-ray release after its stock started rising, so now there are pristine copies available from companies like Umbrella, Second Sight, X-Rated Kultvideo and Severin. Many of these come with director, cast and crew commentary. The film is also sometimes screened on the Criterion Channel and is (at least currently) on Tubi TV to watch for free. 

Though you very well may enjoy this more than I did, I'd still absolutely recommend giving it a trial watch prior to purchasing. I almost blind bought due to the hype. Now I'm glad I didn't.

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