The cumulative directorial career of New Zealand-born Tony Williams consists, near as I can tell, of one short film, seven made-for-TV documentary shorts, two narrative features, and (thirty years later than the rest), three documentary features. Of that entire list, the second feature, 1982's Next of Kin, is the only thing that is even remotely close to horror. This represents, I will risk saying, an enormous loss to the annals of genre film, for Next of Kin is a simply fantastic horror film, and fantastic moreover in ways that are directly related to the things a director is most specifically responsible for: camera set-ups, blocking, the shape of actors' emotional arcs, pacing. If Williams had another horror movie half as good as this one rattling around in him, he might very well have been responsible for two of the best horror films of the 1980s, rather than just one.

And yes, absolutely, Next of Kin is one of the best horror films of the '80s, a claim that I am trying to be judicious in making (note my very restrained and conservative star rating), on the grounds that people whose taste in the genre I admire have complained about it being slow and unnecessarily opaque. So let that be read into the record: it is slow, and it is admittedly hard to work out exactly what happened and what every last red herring was doing - I confess to rewatching five minutes very near the end on the assumption that I missed something. You will not hear me say anything else against the movie, dear reader, and even the slowness and opacity aren't problems to me, but part of the film's enormous charm as an Australasian take on an Italian giallo that's as genuinely weird and slippery as anything that genre ever produced. But not because it is simply replicating the tropes and stylistic excesses of the form, like so many 21st Century giallo pastiches. This gets at it more organically, maybe without anybody involved even deliberately thinking upon the gialli, but simply ending up in a similar place by virtue of creating psychological instability through similar methods.

The result reminds me the most of a Lucio Fulci film, with a set-up that echoes The Beyond, superficially: a callow young woman, Linda Stevens (Jacki Kerin), has just inherited a huge old building about which she knows only a little bit, so she goes to check it out. What she learns, upon doing so, is that it's a locus of evil. What kind of evil, exactly, is at play in Next of Kin remains unclear basically all the way through to the end of the movie, so I won't ruin it for you; all I'll say is that I thought that I saw where this was going so clearly that the film simply had to be playing a trick on me. And it was, though not at all the trick I was expecting.

Let's flesh out that story by Williams and co-writer Michael Heath a bit: the film opens with just about the only scene I didn't like, a slow-motion-with-voiceover bit that sets up the scenario in the form of a letter from beyond the grave: Linda's mother, whom she has not seen in some time, has died, leaving to her Montclare, a nursing home that her mother and late aunt Rita created out of their own inherited manor. Linda's visit is meant in the spirit of a fact-finding mission to decide what to do with the huge old place, but it very quickly morphs into something else: well before there's any concrete reason to do so, she gets a distinct sense that something is off, and the pleasant hostility of Connie (Gerda Nicolson) and Dr. Barton (Alex Scott), who took to running the place while Linda's mother was ailing, gives her the distinct sense that not only is something off, something is deliberately being hidden. And her mom's diary seems to confirm that Montclare has a secret history of violence currently repeating itself. Linda enlists the help of her boyfriend Barney (John Jarratt) - the impression one gets is that they've recently rekindled a dormant relationship - but the only clues seem to come in the form of very vague, fragmentary memories she has of a rash of dead bodies from when she was last here, as a very young child. Memories triggered the presence of a new dead body, discovered by a resident named Lance (Charles McCallum), who has a stroke from the terror of it; Lance's ramblings will provide a second clue, if they're to be trusted.

Honestly, though, Next of Kin is probably best regarded not as a mystery, but as a waking hallucination. By the time of the first death - of which we see almost nothing, just enough to make sure we notice that were seeing almost nothing - the film has offered three different broad possibilities for what's going on: Connie and Barton are, for reasons of their own, killing patients; Linda is losing her mind and all the things she's hearing and seeing are the normal doings of a building full of forgetful, insomniac old people; Montclare is haunted. And there are different possible plot strands within each of those, not to mention that they're not mutually exclusive. When the film finally starts to explain things, it's done in part through implication, and expecting that the viewer has been paying very close attention throughout; there's no big explanation scene, although one could argue that there is a parody of one. The point being, we are not getting a story of Linda doggedly struggling, Scooby-Doo-like to find out what's going on; we're instead getting a story of Linda driving herself into a tizzy over possibly imagined voyeurs and horribly childhood memories and increasingly vigorous paranoia.

With that in mind, Williams and company (cinematographer Gary Hansen, editor Max Lemon, art directors Richard Francis and Nick Hepworth, for starters) focus very hard on mood and atmosphere, evoking Linda's deteriorating mental state through a generous application of style. This is the part that resembles an Italian film, of course, and the filmmakers confirm the family resemblance by treating the encroaching feeling of dread as a kind of free-floating aura that doesn't even depend on Linda's presence. The discovery of the first body is a case in point: it's a hell of a scene, set in a bathroom that's simply rotten with thick clouds of steam, filming McCallum's feet through the mist while the score - assembled from the recordings of extraordinarily prolific electronica artist Klaus Schulze (he recorded an original score, but by that point Williams had fallen in love with his all-Schulz temp track, apparently) - moans at us that something awful is about to happen. It's the perfect set up for a jump scare but that's not precisely what happens, instead, the camera poises itself above the surface of a full bathtub, and then slowly descends, dropping below the surface of the water to reveal the bloating corpse lying there. After holding for a few seconds on this grim tableau, Lance's foot comes into frame and steps right on the corpse's face.

It's an outrageously shocking and striking moment, but part of why it works is how weird  it feels while you're watching it. Obviously Lance is going to find the body - we hear the music, we hear the raging water sound effects, we know that a body is in that bathroom - but it's still hard to be prepared for it to be revealed in such an elegant, stately way. The camera doesn't dart, and the music doesn't have a jump-scare sting; it all just kind of happens, repulsively inevitable. It's the one overt moment of horror in the first hour of the 89-minute film, which is by all means a slow burn - for a lot of that hour, it's not explicitly clear that there's even a story, just scenes of Linda giving herself the heebie-jeebies - but which is suffused with that same sense of gliding, stately dread. The music does some of this; the oppressively polished compositions, which render Montclare as a large trap of square halls and a spiral staircase that looks as disorienting and terrifying as any staircase ever has, also do this. And so does Kerin's game performance, which largely consists of looking marginally more haggard in every new scene, until her eyes are staring out of dark-rimmed sockets under a mop of sweaty hair, the very embodiment of inchoate dread. Again, nothing is actually scary here; but for whatever reason, Linda appears to be panicked out of her wits, and since we see this on her face so viscerally, it's hard not to get swept up in it. The magic of a visual medium!

Then, at long last, after twisting and twisting and twisting to wind us up good and tight, the film just explodes, with a final 20 or 25 minutes that are one shocking reveal, astonishing narrative twist, and freaky image after another, with the mystery-ghost-psychothriller adding "slasher" to its bag of tricks. There's a startling close-up of an eye hungrily staring through a keyhole that's maybe the most Italianate part of the film; there is an image of blood pouring out of a fountain that straddles the line between hallucination and reality perfectly. And there's a completely out-of-nowhere final sequence that does some amazing things to slow down the rhythm and change the film's mood on the spot. Plus a final shot that turned out perfect by accident.

The way that the film erupts in its final third is, I acknowledge, part of what makes it seem so weird and imbalanced; but a horror film gets to be imbalanced, and the way that this all feels perfectly in line with Linda's increasingly frayed sense of reality works splendidly to make the whole thing feel unified subjectively and psychologically, even if it's a strange and inexplicable piece of storytelling. Basically, whatever else is going on, this is ultimately psychological horror, and the way it breaks into a flat-out run straight out of a crawl feels captures something about Linda's tense wariness finally overriding her rational brain. Coming after the thick, paranoid atmosphere of the first hour, it's a kind of remarkable portrait of the mental state of a character who is almost defined in terms of our ability to access her thoughts directly. It's maybe an unnecessarily complicated way to build a story, but the results are so enthralling that I say three cheers for unnecessary complexity.

Body Count: A bit tricky to pin down, since part of the point of the film is that they happen off-camera, but I got 7.