Next of Kin

Next of Kin ★★★★

Hoop tober No. 5 #28

One of the high points of this Hooptober so far.

It starts with a fragmentary flash-forward that makes it clear that things are going to go south; I've seen this done a bunch of times (particularly annoying in Don't Breathe, it worked rather better in Lovely Molly) and it usually strikes me as a blunt instrument. In this case, it complicated the atmosphere in a way that felt pervasive but hard to pin down. A movie that tries to walk a line between the dreamlike and surreal on the one hand and the grounded and mundane on the other can rub me the wrong way. I catch myself withholding trust, suspicious that the balance will collapse into silliness or dullness. But Next of Kin had a strong visual style that never let me forget the movie's potential for heightened reality, while the naturalistic performances and strong writing kept me confident that the balance would hold (something that didn't happen for me with, say, Deep Red).

Much credit due to director Tony Williams (with a critical assist from cinematographer Gary Hansen) for having a vision and executing it with such confidence. But what really excites me is vision married to story. This has it. Maybe a little too much of it — occupational hazard for modern Gothics.

The typical Gothic novel drew its power from anxieties about marriage, repressed at the level of the collective consciousness of an oppressive society, but made tangible and manageable through fiction. But as Sady Doyle points out in Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, that these stories were so preoccupied with ominous husbands is only a secondary phenomenon — the point of the Gothic novel was to explore women's fears. It just so happened that one of the scariest boogeys looming over women in those days was marriage itself. Next of Kin starts out with our heroine Linda (a solid performance by Jackie Kerin) inheriting her mother's business — a nursing home run out of an imposing mansion in a remote, small town in Australia. A relocation that leads to isolation is a classic Gothic move. Instead of contending with a marriage and subjection to a brooding husband, Linda contends with a more independent existence and is anything but passive. She helps run the nursing home, reads through her mother's diaries, takes up with an old flame, wrestles with her dreams and memories. By opening up the range of possible anxieties, Next of Kin feels like a fresh take on the Gothic. There are a lot of ways the story could go, but instead of losing momentum in a thicket of possibilities, the movie builds to a marvelous conclusion.

So, if the movie's so great, why had I never heard of it before this year? Part of the answer has to do with the Australian tax code. Division 10BA of the code, for a brief time in the early 1980s, granted investors a 150% tax concession on their investment in a film. They didn't just get to write off the expense — they also got a chunk taken out of their taxes equal to half their investment. This is a staggeringly generous write-off. But they could only get it in the year in which the film was completed. So director Tony Williams and writer Michael Heath had their funding, but they also had a lot of financiers who were in a huge hurry. There was a lot of pressure to see the movie through to completion, but no incentive to market or distribute it was built into the system. On top of that, the film's biggest financier suddenly died after the film was completed, throwing a wrench into the distribution plans.

When we look back at 1982, in terms of the history of horror cinema, it was a great year: Romero's Creepshow, Jones' Slumber Party Massacre, Argento's Tenebre. But none of these movies made particularly good money. It was a year for nostalgia and escapism: apart from the usual suspects (Spielberg), domestic box office was dominated by re-releases of the first two Star Wars movies and Disney's re-releases of Cinderella and Bambi. (Anyone with an interest in the squeezing of the theatrical screening world by big-studio franchise product, and how this didn't start with superhero movies, take note.) A perfect exemplar of this is The Thing — now considered an all-time favorite — delivering an enormous setback to John Carpenter's career. But at least The Thing made it into theaters and found some admirers right away, even if there weren't enough ticket-buyers to please the studios. Next of Kin proved to be an even more extreme exemplar of the 1982 syndrome: a horror film that could easily have been remembered as one of the best of the year, but was barely even seen at the time.

It eventually made it to British home video, but was easy to ignore unless you were a huge nerd with a perpetual boner for Ozploitation, i.e. Quentin Tarantino. Bless him, he became a big name, forgot almost everything about Next of Kin but remembered its "mesmerizing tone of dread" (he's not wrong) and that he had liked it as much as Mad Max. When he sang its praises for a documentary about Australian films in 2008, he set in motion a process of rediscovery that brought a Blu-ray from Severin films (this is how I saw it) and a streaming run on Shudder.

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