Thursday, October 15, 2009
Sometimes the mind fractures…that’s the thought that had been plaguing Linda since her mother had died, under mysterious circumstances, earlier that particularly cold year. In an attempt to sort out the memories haunting her, Linda decides to take up residence in a retirement home that her mom had willed to her. Linda's feeling of renewal soon cracks as some of the residents begin dying mysteriously. Attempting to find out what or whom is killing the residents, Linda begins remembering things from her thoroughly ruptured past, as well as having visions of a seemingly tragic future.
A hypnotic and altogether startling Australian film from 1982, Next of Kin is the very definition of a buried cinematic treasure. Directed memorably by former cinematographer Tony Williams and starring actress Jacki Kerin, Next of Kin is a dazzling achievement in style and vision, and its relatively little known status is troubling to say the least.
Almost as mysterious as Next of Kin's storyline is why the career of Tony Williams didn’t go further. A little known filmmaker outside of Australia, Williams has only two films to his credit as a director, with 1978’s Solo being his lone feature outside of Next of Kin. New Zealand born Williams first cinematic credits appeared during the sixties as the cinematographer on 1964’s Runaway and 1966’s Don’t Let it Get You, both for director John O’Shea. After working as an editor briefly in the early seventies, Williams’ filmography is a blank up until Solo in the late part of the decade. Next of Kin feels like a film by a very seasoned pro at the top of their game, so the fact that it was made by a relative novice makes it all the more impressive. Also the fact that Williams has only worked in commercials since is major loss for modern cinema, as Next of Kin is an incredibly intelligent film that successfully blends style and substance at every surprising turn.
Next of Kin started out life as a script from the pen of Williams and Michael Heath, a man whose other credits include 1982’s The Scarecrow and 1984’s Death Warmed Up. Borrowing stylistic and thematic elements from Bava’s Kill Baby Kill (1966), Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) and especially Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which hit Australia just before Christmas in 1980, Next of Kin reminds me also of Jose Larraz’s chilling and equally masterful 1974 film Symptoms. Like Larraz’s powerful film, Next of Kin vividly deals with a leading female character who may or may not be teetering on the edge of madness. It’s an unreliability that lends a tension to Next of Kin that is palatable from the first scene on, and Williams strong work as a director who understands implicitly the importance of including an emotional weight to even the most stylish shots makes the film a really jaw-dropping achievement.
Williams directorial hand and editorial choices are extremely well done throughout the film as he allows long stretches of silence to perfectly coincide with his leads more meditative moments. Williams also understands how to counter the film’s incredibly quiet and brooding tone with scenes of absolute hysteria, all of which are accompanied by the unforgettable electronic compositions of legendary German composer Klaus Schulze. It is these moments of dreamlike madness that really sets the film apart from just another thriller, as Williams comes up with some truly disturbing images that will linger in the viewers mind (and nightmares) days after watching the film.
Shot beautifully by Australian cinematographer Gary Hansen, who had lensed the underrated Harlequin for director Simon Wincer just two years earlier, Next of Kin is as visually memorable as any other down under production from the period. With its rich tones and wonderfully evocative color scheme, Next of Kin would have been an impressive work even without the thoughtfulness of Williams' direction and script. The fact that the film, despite a relatively low budget, is indeed a fully rounded work thematically as well as stylistically makes it a triumph for everyone involved.
In front of the camera, the actors Williams assembled for his second and sadly final directorial credit all deliver solid and at times resounding work. The wonderful Jacki Kerin, a terrific actress whose credits have mostly been in television, controls Next of Kin with a haunting and beautifully rendered performance. Like Angela Pleasance in Symptoms, Kerin breaths life into what could have been a stock heroine on the edge performance. Top actor John Jarrett, who Picnic at Hanging Rock fans will immediately recognize, delivers fine work as well for Williams even though the film is Kerin’s movie all the way.
While the film is a striking work thoughout its under ninety minute running time, Williams really pulls out all the stops with an stunning final section that is incredibly well rendered in its execution. From a dare you to blink slow motion sequence featuring an above shot of Kerin running down a hall to an incredibly bizarre, but brilliant, moment involving a collapsing sugar cube pyramid, Next of Kin's final sequences and set pieces would have made even Kubrick proud.
Next of Kin would garner a severe mixed critical reaction, and it wasn’t a huge hit with the public upon its initial release. It did win a couple of festival prizes and it has taken on a small but well deserved cult following over the years. Available on DVD in Australia, Next of Kin has still yet to have an official release anywhere else in the world. It’s a prime candidate for special edition treatment, and it would be wonderful if a company like Blue Underground or Severin could get a hold of it for a proper release.
The film was mentioned, and the stunning last shot was celebrated, in the tremendous documentary Not Quite Hollywood recently, and Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of the film, calling it ‘mesmerizing’ to an Australian reporter a couple of years back. Tarantino's one word critique is right on the money, and if Next of Kin ever does get a wide DVD release then get ready as this is a major cult film waiting to happen. Powerful, chilling, moving and unbelivably haunting, Next of Kin is one of the best Australian films of the eighties...seek it out.