NEXT OF KIN. Intense and gripping Australian gem of a horror
Australian cinema is a relatively young entity that only made its presence known on the world cinema map in the 1970s. The early days of Australian horror are primarily associated with the initial films of Peter Weir, such as the grotesque The Cars That Ate Paris and, perhaps surprisingly, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a masterpiece of atmosphere and metaphysical mystery. Later Australian horror became more straightforward and spectacular, with notable examples including Richard Franklin’s Patrick, where the titular comatose patient terrorizes hospital staff with telekinesis, Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend about nature’s revenge on a troubled marriage, and the cult classic Razorback by Russell Mulcahy, featuring a monstrous wild boar. Until the late 1980s, cheap and often very brutal Australian cinema thrived, earning its own label – Ozploitation. Under this banner, you could find a variety of films, including gory horror, erotic comedies, and wild action movies. Most of the joyful creations from that era now hold sentimental value, though true gems occasionally emerge. One such gem is Tony Williams’ Next of Kin.
Next of Kin plot is pretty straightforward – after her mother’s death, Linda (Jacki Kerin) returns to Montclare, her family’s estate, which she has inherited. The house currently operates as a retirement home with low profitability, prompting Linda to consider selling it. However, her sentimental attachment to the place, where she spent her childhood and which has been in the family for years, makes her hesitate. Soon, Linda experiences strange occurrences – she is being observed by a mysterious figure, and her dreams merge with her memories. Additionally, her mother’s diaries from many years ago suggest a mystery that, when solved, may reveal whether Linda is indeed in danger.
The most significant strength of Next of Kin is the uncertainty surrounding the source and nature of the threat. Contradictory signals come from all directions – a TV news report about a killer on the loose, Linda’s dreamlike visions that could suggest a supernatural danger, and the implication that whatever is happening to Linda might have a psychological basis. Later in the film, her mother’s diaries present yet another theory, possibly the most intriguing one, interpreting current events as a self-fulfilling past. The story begins to repeat itself, but the reason for this seems random. The film focuses on creating another obstacle for Linda, who cannot comprehend the situation she finds herself in.
Hailing from New Zealand, Williams, who didn’t direct another feature film after Next of Kin, brilliantly exploits the lethargic atmosphere of a place where virtually nothing happens. The nearby town is stuck in a rut (the news of a new public toilet is a sensation), which helps rekindle Linda’s relationship with her former boyfriend. In Montclare, time came to a halt a long time ago—the Gothic-looking building inhabited by the elderly residents stands solid and will likely outlive them all. Linda’s youth contrasts intriguingly with her surroundings, the historic nature of the place, and the age of the people living in the house. When one of them dies in the bathtub, their bloated, pale body gives the impression that it’s about to disintegrate. A moment later, we see Linda bathing in the lake and making love to her boyfriend (played by John Jarratt, known from the later Wolf Creek). Their sweaty, eager bodies are only moments away from the inevitable aging process, a reminder Montclare seems to deliver continually.
In the excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, Quentin Tarantino compares Next of Kin to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And not without reason. In both films, the past and the present strangely intertwine, causing cognitive uncertainty in the main character, but leading to entirely different results. The solitary standing building, full of secrets and “skeletons in the closet,” as well as the juxtaposition of youth and old age, may evoke associations with Kubrick’s film. However, while many horror films share similar narrative underpinnings with The Shining, it’s challenging to create an atmosphere where oneirism and realism coexist, and the sense of impending tragedy is felt so strongly.
After the last viewing, a much more recent film came to my mind, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. In that film, family secrets from the past also push the main character into a strange state somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, while the beauty of the house and surroundings contrasts with the horror of the situation. Placing the Australian B-grade thriller alongside works by renowned creators from the United States and Korea might seem like a misguided idea, but I assure you that i holds its own in this comparison, offering its own well-thought-out vision of horror. Simultaneously, it surprises most in terms of execution, providing not only the beauty of Australian landscapes but also (to a greater extent) directorial skill and creativity.
Next of Kin is a film with a slowly unfolding intrigue, where the deliberate pace is not in harmony with the highly vivid audiovisual layer. Cinematographer Gary Hansen likes to start a particular shot from very unusual frames, often shooting the protagonist from above; at other times, the shots surprise with their dynamism, moving through hotel corridors at dizzying speeds. This brings to mind the equally mad camera work in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, a film created roughly around the same time, but on the other side of the Pacific.
Klaus Schulze’s music makes its presence felt from the opening frames, introducing the viewer to the right mood before anything begins. In the prologue, we see a bloodied Linda slowly circling a car, with her mother’s voice reading a testament in voice-over. Even then, old age and youth, death and life intertwine, and this is vividly illustrated by Schulze’s distinct, relentlessly rhythmic composition, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work. The other tracks, dominated by synthesizers, also effectively build an atmosphere of mystery and danger.
The efficient storytelling wraps up the entire film in 85 minutes, reserving the last quarter for a powerful, intense, and gripping conclusion that explains all the preceding events. If in The Shining, the most deadly element turns out to be the hotel itself, Next of Kin finds its danger in the human memory rather than the place.