I decided it was time to start another small film series. This one about some horror films I saw at a preposterously early age and fell in love with. I am always surprised when I mention them to other people and they are either unheard of, or poorly regarded. So I’m here to tell you why they are brilliant, for me.
We’ll begin with the marvellously atmospheric Australian Next of Kin (1982). NOT the Patrick Swayze film!! The first thing to mention about this and the thing you will see first (it’s on YouTube for now, for how long I don’t know, but try to see it) is the slow motion shots and the music. The music is deceptively simple, the synthy music favoured by low budget horrors of the time. But it’s so good. So inevitable. Klaus Schulze: I love it!
The film focusses on Linda, who has odd holes in her childhood memories. She was brought up by her mother who ran an old folks home in the back of beyond. When her mother dies, she inherits the home, and goes back there, to decide whether to run it herself (it has financial problems) or whether to sell it and leave her past behind. As soon as she arrives, odd things begin to happen: things moved about, candles blown out, people seen from outside at windows where no one should be, taps left running. And all these things provoke strange snippets of memory from her childhood. She also takes up again with an on off boyfriend from the past played by John Jarrat, who went on to be a good person in almost everything else he was ever in (he did pretty well in Australia), and then a very bad baddie in Wolf Creek, which is where you know him from if you aren’t having Picnic at Hanging Rock flashbacks.
The thing that stops this film being simply a small scale mystery slasher is the loving attention given to the world of the old folks home. There are some brilliant old folk characters, Lance being the main one obviously – an old ex-army serviceman, who was like a father to Linda growing up, and who as he ages tells endless stories about his army days, no matter what is actually happening and if anyone is actually listening or interested. We all know someone like him; and instead of portraying him as an irritation, all the old folk are portrayed as proper characters, lovingly kooky and outspoken, if definitely into their second childhood. Whilst they can be tiresome, they are shown with affection. There’s something very lovely in that.
The next thing that raises this film above your average low budget horror is the camera work. Some beautiful gothic feeling shots down spiral stairways, through billowing white sheets on lines, some marvellous marrying of music cues and ambient noise to slow mo shots. The camera work takes this film into a whole other league, artistically: I always love to just watch it. The repeated red patches, as well done as Don’t Look Now and the rain slicker; the pale house and grounds blending into Linda’s own paleness, as if she is sinking into the past that is trying to rise up and get her back.
There’s a good sense evoked in this film also, of how you can never quite BE a grown up when you are surrounded by people who knew you as a child. Her attempts to behave like a dignified grown up have an edge of playacting to them because of their view of her. She feels unwelcome, trapped, unsettled – even before anything truly disturbing starts to happen. Linda tries valiantly to take on the mantle of her mother and do her bit around the home while she is deciding what to do with it, but Doctor Barton and the Housekeeper seem determined, unintentionally, you can see, to view her as a wayward and over imaginative child, and liken her to her mother, who they also think was losing it as she got older. It turns out there is good reason for them to think this, this idea of inherited madness, but its mistaken as to whom, and leads to a long misunderstanding and one of the best scenes in the film where Linda decides it is those two who are behind all the strange incidents, and the killing of the elderly residents in their beds or baths. Both they and Linda are wrong, and there is quite a wonderful reveal scene near the end of the film, where you are shocked to find who is in fact causing all the trouble. But I get ahead of myself.
There’s a feeling in the film, which plays greatly into the atmosphere, of a slow burning pain in Linda to do with her past. The short dream sequences and their odd sound effects, repeated motifs [the red ball, the shaded bath] make for a very sinister feel of doom coming. Linda spends a lot of the film confused, over tired, sadly grieving of course…and increasingly alarmed and then paranoid. The build-up and change in her emotional state is shown by her relationship with Barney, John Jarratt’s character – first she seems serenely and unthinkingly trusting and happy to slip into her past role and go skinny dipping with him, to run through the woods as if they were both teenagers again; but by the time of the Fireman’s Night in the local Hall, she has become terrified and almost breaks down the doors to get to him in hysterics, embarrassing him in front of his friends, and showing the extension of a small but very self-enclosed world in the area. The film gives a feel of the vastness of Australia, and the parochial nature of its small settlements. The land manages to be scary and endless, desolate while also too small, inescapable at the same time. There’s a sense beyond the story told of a real world in the background, nicely shown and nodded to, but Linda is trapped in a smaller and smaller world of the past made present which she cannot escape. It’s claustrophobic.
It takes us far from the world of a cheap slasher and into a real psychological drama: in a way it’s a gaslighting film, except that the source of her increasing terror and madness is quite real and physical and based on an old resentment that she was far too young to be blamed for or to understand at the time. As an adult, she pays for the sins of her mother in the eyes of the killer. The whole film begins to take on the feeling of a dream you cannot wake up from and where you can trust no one, and those alive a moment ago will be dead when you next turn round. Blended with that are segments of total boring normality. These make the dream sequences and the feeling of Linda’s (as it turns out perfectly justified) slide into psychosis to be all the more real and worrying. (Why did actress Jacki Kerin not go on to wow the world and be in everything?? I think she did incredibly well in this...)
When the climax of the film finally comes its quite violent quite quickly, very visceral. The last scene in the home and then the waiting scene in the roadside diner are among my favourite in all of the horror films I’ve ever seen. A very immediate and scary episode, followed by a flight and then a waiting for it all to come back, because it cannot yet be finished. (And of course, it’s not! This is a horror, after all!) I’m dying to spoiler you about who is the killer, but I really shall not for once, as I truly want you to go off and watch this slow burner and love it for its creeping atmospherics, its repetitive music and it’s on the button performances. The panic scenes are done so well, as they must seem from the inside of Linda’s head: the sound distortion, the synth riff, the bursts of slow motion and sudden close up. The whole thing is so well crafted and so nicely paced. I’ve heard lots of people say they felt it was unutterably slow, and then the finale did not live up to what they had been expecting, plus they thought those bits were over acted.
I have no idea about any of that. I really appreciate a slow atmosphere if done well, with enough characterisation and place setting to keep me interested, enough clues dropped. I’ve already said it’s beautiful to watch, and has a good sense of place and the time it was made. If you skip to about 1 hour 11 minutes, how can you not love the distant sounds, the repetitive sound of the mallet being banged on the ground to scare her; you can just feel how fear is trying to make her run straight out of her own head, how she can’t believe this situation is happening and why won’t it stop. Without reference to any interior other than what we are shown in the crafting of the shots, I feel we understand her mind perfectly, which enables that so necessary thing for horror: almost complete identification with the valiant last person standing. There are tension spikes at 40 minutes – 54 minutes; 1:02, 1:07, 1:11, the film doesn’t let you rest long. There’s some marvellous misdirection amongst the players, giving looks to each other that can be read in more than one way. The film in total is 1:25 minutes long, quite short by today’s standards. And from an increasing feeling of tension (rather than odd displacement) at about 40 minutes, by the end you are in such a state of tension for poor Linda that when the film finally ends…well, you’re just a bit wrung out. Which is how It Should Be with horror, don’t you think?
Go with it! It’s great! As Australian horrors so often are.