Familiarity can be a help or a hindrance to genre films— the audience can either feel comforted or bored by tropes and narratives they’ve seen a hundred times before. However, when it comes to stories about believing women, horror has a longstanding history— from Rosemary’s Baby to this year’s The Invisible Man— because the subject, sadly, never loses relevancy. Joe Marcantonio and IFC Midnight’s KINDRED is horror’s latest pillar of this delicate yet imperative subject matter.
Opening with a dictionary definition of Corvidae, birds often portrayed in literature as omens of misfortune and death, KINDRED introduces the believably loving couple Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and Ben (Edward Holcroft) preparing to break the news to Ben’s overbearing and shrill mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) that they plan on moving far away. Margaret lives with a non-romantic companion Thomas (Jack Lowden) whose overwhelming politeness and attentiveness to Charlotte and Ben feels too good to be true.
As it always does, life gets in the way for the couple, in the form of a surprise pregnancy. The couple contemplates staying put, while Charlotte internally thinks about terminating the pregnancy and whether or not she even wants motherhood. Shortly after, the proverbial rug is ripped from underneath Charlotte, (and the viewer) as tragedy strikes, trapping the pregnant Charlotte alone with Margaret and Thomas in a home that is not her own and with a fearful, grief-stricken heart that will never fully heal.
Something is very amiss— Margaret blames Charlotte for the tragedy, before quickly forgiving her and obsessively worrying about the wellbeing of Charlotte’s unborn baby, as if it were her own. Charlotte is gaslighted by the few surrounding her, including both Margaret and Thomas, as well as her doctor, in one of the most blatant yet effective modern takes on Rosemary’s Baby in some time. (No Satan babies or cults here, though.) Margaret and Thomas take away her phone, sell her home, imprison her, and insist that she’s “not well” and has the same “condition” that her mother had. Charlotte fights for agency and freedom in this increasingly nightmarish scenario, since happiness seems to be out of the question.
The authentically raw Lawrance (in one of the best genre performances I’ve seen this year) transmits Charlotte’s pain directly through to the viewer, as her pregnancy grows physically tougher, and her grief is insurmountable. And KINDRED thoroughly understands grief— the tears, the mental flashbacks of happier memories, the hugging of the deceased’s article of clothing— as well as the messiness of being left behind with less-than-desirable surviving family members. Shaw and Lowden are also phenomenal, but the film is Lawrance’s to steal.
Less overtly spooky but dripping with anxiety, the psychologically horrific KINDRED is laced in classical gray-tinged cinematography, gothic set designs, and imagery. While the viewer wishes for Charlotte’s escape, the castle-like lair that her mother-in-law and companion have trapped her in is undeniably mesmerizing— recalling the atmospheric Victorian home within The Innocents. The visuals only matched with an equally haunting, melancholy string score. As the opening forebodes, the Corvidae flitters throughout, suggesting Charlotte never stands a chance against her fate. Dread mounts, as we’re uncertain why exactly Charlotte is being held captive and what Margaret and Thomas’ motives are, even as conversational clues are hinted at.
Aside from a brief, minor twist regarding a trusted character that feels unearned in an otherwise tight screenplay, KINDRED is nearly flawless and compelling from start to finish, thanks to Marcantonio’s direction and Lawrance’s performance. Some films recognize they don’t need a boogeyman to be scary— they just need a trapped woman that no one will listen to in a hopeless situation. Another win for IFC Midnight in 2020.
KINDRED will be released in select theaters, on Digital, and on Cable Video On Demand on November 6, 2020.