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Retro Review: NEXT OF KIN (1982)

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NEXT OF KIN
(Australia - 1982; US release 1985)

Directed by Tony Williams. Written by Michael Heath and Tony Williams. Cast: Jackie Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott, Gerda Nicolson, Charles McCallum, Bernadette Gibson, Robert Ratti, Vince Deltito, Tommy Dysart, Debra Lawrance, Matt Burns. (Unrated, 89 mins)

A genuinely unsettling gem from Australia that fans of cult horror and Ozploitation have largely kept to themselves, 1982's NEXT OF KIN is a textbook example of the "slow burn" approach that many indie horror films have taken in recent years. Of course, Quentin Tarantino has gone on the record as being one of its biggest fans, but it's almost certain that filmmakers like Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS) and Oz Perkins (I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER) have seen it and studied it. Made during an era when the horror genre was dominated by both slasher movies and trailblazing special effects makeup and creature FX, NEXT OF KIN is almost a film out of its time, and one that spends its first 2/3 being deliberately coy about exactly what it's up to. In the end, its reveals don't offer much in the way of surprises and twists, but that's really not important. Throughout the film's duration, New Zealand-born director Tony Williams and his co-writer Michael Heath conduct such a master class in slowly-escalating dread and screw-tightening tension, pulling it off with such confidence, style, and panache that NEXT OF KIN's biggest mystery is ultimately why neither of their careers really went anywhere in the ensuing years.






Returning to her isolated rural Australian hometown after years away upon receiving word that her estranged mother has died, Linda (Jackie Kerin) isn't really enthused about being left in charge of Montclare, the family estate that now doubles as a nursing home. On the outskirts of a podunk town where nothing much goes on ("Well, there's a new public toilet!" boasts the gruff owner of the local greasy spoon), Montclare is in dire financial straits and has seen better days, and despite the hopes of administrative nurse Connie (Gerda Nicolson) and Dr. Barton (Alex Scott) that the facility be kept open, with Connie even admitting a new resident, Mrs. Ryan (Bernadette Gibson), against her wishes, Linda is exploring all of her options with what to do with the place and its dwindling number of residents. That number only keeps dwindling as a string of Montclare's elderly are found dead, with evasive Dr. Barton declaring one a drowning in a bathtub despite Linda seeing what appear to be deep bruises on the corpse's neck that would indicate strangulation. All the while, Linda is haunted by nightmares of a long-suppressed, traumatic incident that took place at Montclare when she was a child, eventually finding corroboration in her mother's hidden diaries that detail an extensive history of madness and murder at the house over 20 years earlier. The events taking place now and manifesting in Linda's nightmares seem to mirror those documented in the tattered pages of her mother's journals, with include a foreboding warning that "There is something evil in this house." Naturally, her concerns are mostly disregarded by Dr. Barton, Connie, and hunky local firefighter Barney (John Jarratt), with whom she cautiously rekindles a romance that began back when they were teenagers.


Williams and Heath take an inordinate amount of time letting NEXT OF KIN simmer to a raging boil. It flirts with being everything from a then-trendy slasher film, a haunted house ghost story, and an Australian giallo (one brief shot on a TV screen at a diner has echoes of Dario Argento briefly flashing a huge reveal early in DEEP RED that no first-time viewer ever catches but is plain as day on subsequent watches) before it finally shows its cards in its audacious third act that culminates in an almost apocalyptic finale straight out of MAD MAX. But before that, the filmmakers establish a sense of unease with unnerving images like Linda repeatedly spotting a figure watching her from a distance or pulling into the long driveway at Montclare and catching a fleeting glimpse of someone in a red coat standing in her bedroom window. This almost glacial buildup lasts for an hour before it suddenly explodes, almost out of nowhere, when the killer pursues Linda through a mostly unoccupied wing of Montclare as she runs from room to room to hide as the pounding footsteps of the sprinting, hammer-wielding murderer could be coming from any direction. The long corridors of the home allow HARLEQUIN and WE OF THE NEVER NEVER cinematographer Gary Hansen (who would be tragically killed in a helicopter crash while filming a TV commercial later in 1982) and Steadicam operator Toby Phillips (a protege of Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who used it to much notoriety in ROCKY and THE SHINING, the latter a clear stylistic influence on NEXT OF KIN) to prowl the ominous halls of Montclare--which also showcases of the genre's great spiral staircases--and indulge in some breathtaking flourishes when the camera shifts and swings in unexpected directions, whether it's some overhead shots or the startling way Williams has one of the villains suddenly bolt into the frame like a wild animal about to pounce. Also greatly contributing to the atmosphere is a moody and effective score by German electronic music pioneer Klaus Schulze (an early member of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel), which lends a bit of a SUSPIRIA vibe and really gets under your skin.






At the time, the cast was unknown outside of Australia, though Jarratt would find some notoriety among horror and cult movie fans many years later thanks to his dark-side-of-Crocodile Dundee performance as an affable Outback serial killer in the controversial WOLF CREEK and Jarratt superfan Tarantino giving him a brief role near the end of DJANGO UNCHAINED. The very appealing Kerin, who has a striking resemblance to Nastassja Kinski, had some TV credits to her name and appeared in a few episodes of PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H, a late '70s Australian women-in-prison series that aired in syndication in the States. NEXT OF KIN remains her only feature film to date, and while she acted sporadically on Australian TV over the next couple of decades, she's better known in her homeland these days as a children's book author and storyteller. Just out in an extras-packed Blu-ray from Severin (because physical media is dead), NEXT OF KIN didn't find any attention from American distributors at the time, taking three years to get a straight-to-video release in 1985 courtesy of Media Home Entertainment offshoot VCL Communications, and then getting relaunched again in 1988 through Virgin Vision. Heath went on to write the 1984 New Zealand-made video store fixture DEATH WARMED UP and the 1992 Al Lewis comedy MY GRANDPA IS A VAMPIRE. Born in 1944, Williams had the little-seen 1978 Australian drama SOLO under his belt, as well as a handful of gigs as an editor and a cinematographer, but he followed NEXT OF KIN with 31 years of off-the-radar silence. Since 2013, he's directed three documentaries that likely haven't been seen outside of either Australia or New Zealand. Looking at it now, NEXT OF KIN should've established Tony Williams as a major new figure in horror, but he seemingly walked away, leaving his legacy in the genre to stand with one small masterpiece of its kind.


Director/co-writer Tony Williams, star Jackie Kerin, and
cinematographer Gary Hansen on the set of NEXT OF KIN. 


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