Next of Kin (1982) *
Such a waste. This typically stylish Australian horror flick could have been awfully good, if only screenwriter Michael Heath and director Tony Williams had given a damn. But they didnít, and so instead of being awfully good, Next of Kin is merely awful.
After the death of her mother, a young woman named Linda (Jacki Kerin) returns to Montclaire, her familyís ancestral manor, which her mother and aunt had turned into a nursing home some thirty years before. Linda herself isnít really sure what sheís going to do with the place. Montclaire has been in the family for so long that she hesitates to sell it, but then again, she doesnít see herself as being cut out for running a nursing home, and she wouldnít be able to pay the property taxes on the place if she were to turn it back into a private residence. Her motherís old assistant, Connie (Gerda Nicolson), seems to be doing a good enough job keeping the place running from day to day, though, so Linda figures sheís got a little time, at least, before sheíll have to make a final decision. With that in mind, she merely instructs Connie not to take on any new inmates until she gets a clearer idea of the nursing homeís finances.
But Connie seems to be somewhat jealous of the authority she has accrued during the years of Lindaís motherís long illness, and she allows a new boarder to move in anyway. This woman is named Mrs. Ryan (Bernadette Gibson), and from the moment her son, Kelvin (Robert Ratti), drops her off at Montclaire, it seems as though there may be something odd about her. Though she is theoretically confined to a wheelchair, the way she gets around on her cane when her chair gets its wheels mired in the homeís muddy driveway certainly doesnít look like the hobbling of an invalid. Not only that, it is just after Mrs. Ryanís arrival that Linda first sees the shadowy stranger spying on her from between the trees on the nursing home grounds.
Then Lance (Charles McCallum), the comparatively sturdy inmate who helps out as Montclaireís groundskeeper, finds the dead body in the bathtub. It seems another of the old men has gone and drowned himself, and the shock of discovering the corpse gives Lance a stroke that leaves him bedridden for most of the film. Itís tough to say why Linda finds this development so frightening, but it seems to have something to do with some half-remembered incident from her childhood.
At first, Linda tries to distract herself from her growing (and, alas, completely unexplained) sense that something isnít right around Montclaire by getting back together with an old boyfriend named Barney (John Jarrat, from the obscure Australian Jaws rip-off Dark Age), but that helps only until she notices her mysterious peeping tom following them about on their dates. It isnít until she starts looking through the nursing homeís financial records, however, that she really starts to believe something is amiss. While going through one of the ledgers, Linda finds entries for payments to a ďDr. D. B.Ē for providing treatment for her aunt Rita. The reason this disturbs her is that she had always been led to believe that Rita had already been dead by the time these entries were made, and sheís quite certain that ďDr. D. B.Ē is the same Dr. Barton (Romper Stomperís Alex Scott) who still works closely with Montclaire. And whatís more, it is Lanceís contention that Aunt Rita is still alive.
Of course, Lance is extremely old, and heís just recently had a minor stroke. Perhaps one ought not to take anything he says just now all that seriously. The references in her motherís diaries to a sudden rash of bathtub drownings in the early 60ís, and to the presence of a persistent, unidentified prowler on the grounds of the home at that time are another matter, though. Thereís no reason to chalk those up to the incoherent ramblings of a confused, geriatric brain. The more Linda reads, the more worried she becomes; evidently, her mother eventually became convinced that some malevolent supernatural force was stalking Montclaire, manifesting itself in ways that bear a suspicious resemblance to what Linda sees going on around her now. On the other hand, itís also possible that Dr. Barton, who is obviously lying when he tells Linda that her aunt Rita died in a mental hospital many years ago, is simply a murderer (he signed the death certificates for all the drowned inmates back in the 60ís, after all, attributing their deaths to causes that donít make much sense in context), and that Connie is in collusion with him for some reason. In fact, as the days go by, Linda increasingly comes to favor the latter interpretation.
Sheís wrong, though. Thereís a murderer on the loose in Montclaire, alright, and that murderer is about to start racking up kills in a major way, but it isnít Dr. Barton Linda needs to be worried about. Remember Mrs. Ryan, the woman who showed up at the home on Lindaís first night back in town? Well it just so happens that Mrs. Ryan is really Aunt Rita, who has been lying low for years, waiting for her chance to get back at her sister, Connie, and Dr. Barton for packing her off to that asylum so long ago. To hear Rita tell it, the three conspirators did so in order to keep her from telling the police that they were killing their inmates. Of course, if thatís so, then why do you suppose the killings began anew right when Rita came back to Montclaire? And why is there blood all over Ritaís hands when she and Linda finally meet up one night after all the old folks have been sent off on some field trip or other to someplace more exciting than the sleepy little town on the outskirts of which Montclaire stands? For that matter, why is Ritaís son, Kelvin, lurking in the corner of her room holding a big fucking hammer? Looks to me like Next of Kin just turned into the worldís only slasher movie set in an Australian nursing home.
It sounds like a decent, suspenseful little movie the way I describe it, doesnít it? Well donít let me fool you. It should have been, but it is prevented from turning into one by a number of poor scripting and directorial decisions. First of all, what ought to have been the buildup, during which the evidence gradually accumulates that something is disastrously wrong at Montclaire, never actually builds anything. The tone is so low-key during the first three quarters of the film that we in the audience canít for the life of us understand why Linda is becoming so alarmed at the goings-on in the old mansion. While Iím sure it would be pretty unnerving if it happened to you, finding a dead body in the bathtub canít be all that rare an occurrence in a nursing home, and even after the revelation that it was the eight-year-old (or thereabouts) Linda that found the first of the victims twenty years before, itís hard to understand the effect the current parallel experience has on her. The later scene in which Linda walks into one of the bathrooms and finds that somebody has left all the faucets running for long enough to overflow both sink and bathtub might have been as creepy as the filmmakers clearly thought it was if it had already been established that Linda was alone in the house at the time, but not only is she not alone, sheís surrounded by people who are having a good day if they can remember what year it is and recognize their childrenís faces. Itís a nursing home, for Christís sakeó I wouldnít think a day could go by without somebody leaving the taps running!
But even once the action finally begins, it is compressed into such a short stretch of screentime that it becomes very hard to make sense of it all. The issue of whether Rita (clearly the current killer) or her sister had been the homicidal maniac back in the 60ís is never entirely resolved. One hesitates to take the word of a deranged killer, after all, but earlier scenes in the film make it very plain that Connie and Barton are in cahoots on something. The climactic showdown between Linda and Kelvin, which takes place at a diner just down the road from Montclaire, is even more confusing, in that it incidentally seems to imply that the diner is owned and operated by an eleven-year-old Filipino boy! Most damning of all is the fact that it wasnít until nearly two hours after I finished watching Next of Kin that I figured out who the hammer-wielding madman working for Aunt Rita really was. Kelvin is onscreen for scarcely two minutes at the beginning of the film, vanishes completely, appears for a confusing thirty-second confrontation with Linda on the highway, and then vanishes again until he finally shows up for the climax. And because his first scene takes place at night, during a thunderstorm, the only way I finally recognized him at all was by the very distinctive custom bumper on his van!!!! Williams and Heath really did have a lot to work with here, what with their unexpected setting and their story that turns into a slasher flick the moment itís finished convincing you youíre watching a ghost story, but from the look of things, they just didnít feel like putting forth the effort that would have let Next of Kin realize its potential.