Next of Kin was one of only two fictional films that Tony Williams directed, and it’s long since passed out of general circulation, but it’s easily one of the most evocative Australian horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Set in a country town, it follows Linda, a young woman played by Jacki Kerin, who returns home after her mother passes away. Linda moves back into her old family house, an enormous building that doubles as a nursing home, while also reconnecting with her ex-boyfriend Barney, played by John Jarratt. Linda never quite feels at home in the town, and feels increasingly out of place in the house, which becomes more haunted as the film proceeds, asserting its agency in all kinds of unsettling and uncanny ways. Although the resulting horror was marketed as Ozploitation, it’s really more like an exercise in Australian giallo – full of lush atmospheric scenes that are occasionally punctuated by moments of extreme violence, most of which enhance our awareness of Williams’ camera as a voyeuristic participant in the spectacles that are unfolding before us.
Like the best giallo films, Next of Kin is beautifully and deftly directed, often reminding me of Robert Altman’s Images in the dexterity with which it displaces any stable or single source of horror. Williams seeks out the most unusual and uncanny spaces in the house, the town and the bush, evincing an exquisite taste for the small details that can make the outback so eerie, without ever opting for the more overt horror effect of Ozploitation either. While Linda seems to settle back in immediately, the images in the film continually remind us how estranged she really is, often rivalling those of Picnic at Hanging Rock in their dreamy strangeness and surrealism. Yet where Gheorghe Zamfir’s panpipe score unsettles the bush in Peter Weir’s film, here it’s Klaus Schulze’s electronic refrains that make the images uncanny, often settling into a Teutonic-synthetic vamp at precisely those moments when the mise-en-scene seems most indubitably and recognisably Australian in its address.
The sheer improbability of Schulze’s score mirrors the sheer improbability of Linda’s house – a sprawling, ivy-covered, Gothic structure – within the landscape around it. Much of the eeriness of the film stems from the connective tissue between the house and the town, especially during one pivotal scene that involves a phone box set in the middle of nowhere. Simultaneously expressionistic and naturalistic in the manner of so much outback scenery, this phone box encapsulates the fluid, elastic, evocative sense of space that permeates the film as a whole. In one scene, Williams cuts repeatedly to a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, as if to suggest that his main character is also entranced – and debilitated – by the vast fields of mobile and uncanny space that open up around her house. Like the house in that painting, Linda’s house is only provisionally situated in the landscape that surrounds it, refusing to concede any continuity with the bush or small town ambience.
This discontinuity is perhaps clearest in the way Williams moves between scenes and images. Usually, he cuts just before a scene seems ready to end, and nearly always cuts to a beautiful, surprising or unexpected image, imbuing each new shot with a revelatory intensity. Over time, this gradually dislocates the camera, situating the audience as just one pair of eyes in a network of gazes that gradually exceed it, and gradually exceed human agency. In one bravura sequence, Williams follows a cat as it charts its way through the house at night, keeping low and close to its passage in the same way that Dario Argento will often follow an animal through a space. After a while, the cat takes us to the eyes of a dead man, and from there to the eyes of a woman with dementia, who drifts into the scene at the creepiest possible moment. Between the eyes of animals, death and dementia, Williams unsettles the audience’s gaze, while also turning that gaze into a visceral, plastic entity – a surface for violence – that paves the way for an incredibly gruesome concluding sequence.
This shifting gaze makes the house feel sentient, but also displaces that sentience from the house. Rather than the house simply taking on the malevolent agency of Linda’s mother, a prescience starts to build that cannot be reduced to the house, or contained by its rooms. Instead, the house seems to be the object of a gathering gaze that quietly watches its comings and going from afar, not unlike the rock in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which only grows in power once the girls return to their boarding school. In some of the eeriest early scenes, Williams takes us through mobile, elliptical scenes that end with Linda glimpsing a figure watching her in the distance, or on the horizon, claiming the house as its own without ever fully inhabiting it. As Next of Kin proceeds, its subject matter becomes this gaze that is continually receding from view, resulting in perhaps the most striking signature of the film – William’s tendency to suddenly – but smoothly – shift vantage points unexpectedly during tracking-shots, or to deflect tracking-shots before they seem to have reached a destination.
In other words, no single image or object satisfies the film’s uncanny spatial curiosity, meaning that there is a slightly disconnect between each scene – something not quite continuous about the camera’s perception, or Linda’s perception. Rather than creating a fully-formed horror aesthetic, Williams instead presents Australian Gothic as a state of discontinuity – between the landscape and what the Gothic mode expects of it, between Australian imagery and transplanted European expectations – and an aesthetic outlook that never quite arrives at its proper object or location. Quentin Tarantino has championed the film, observing that its tone is unique in horror cinema, but recalls that of The Shining more than any other horror film. Released two years after Stanley Kubrick’s classic, the parallels are very clear here, and could almost be called derivative at certain moments. Yet Next of Kin also moves beyond The Shining, envisaging how Kubrick’s film might look if it were entirely liberated from Stephen King’s narrative, and instead imagined as a free-floating Steadicam fantasy that never resolves itself or settles into a stable ending. Only in Australia, Williams seems to suggest, could that delay and discontinuity have sustained a film, and only in Australia could this beautiful film have been made, and been so strangely forgotten.