The Kindred (1987) Blu-ray Review: Practical Effects, Impractical Storytelling

The difference between bad practical effects and bad CG is that bad practical still look like effort. Bad CG looks like laziness. Behind the scenes, the provider of the “bad” CG was tearing their hair out, facing ridiculous deadlines and doing their damndest. Still, a crappy physical puppet looks miles better than an infinitely more complicated but less convincing CG composite. This isn’t fair, and it becomes less fair as the distance from the era of practical effect flattens the critical discourse. Movies whose creatures were barely passable in their time look like revelations today.

To wit, The Kindred. A science fiction horror film with a story is so murky and strange that I defy anyone who has seen it to adequately explain it.

Our hero John Hollins is called to the hospital where his mother has awoken from a coma. The only thing she has to say to him is that he has to go to her house and destroy everything upstairs. She’s a genetic scientist who worked from home. Her experiments need suppression – to be destroyed. It’s a strange and seemingly urgent mission. But John doesn’t move on it at once. He waits so there’s adequate time for his mother’s rival, Dr. Phillip Lloyd, to find out about her secrets.

She dies, and eventually John gathers his team of grad students, and goes to the old homestead. Also in tow is the mysterious Melissa Leftridge, a British student who holds John’s mother up as her idol. When the team arrives at the house, there’s no power, no gas, and no sign of any experiments.

Except the dog goes missing. Then… a scene happens that is so weird it’s hard to describe. One of the students brings a giant watermelon to the house that is meant to be a present for her parents. Somehow it gets filled with genetic experiments. When she drives home, it bursts open in the back seat, strangles her, and sends her car careening into a river.

No one in the film ever mentions her again.

The Kindred is full of strange things that try to add texture to what is essentially a monster in a house scary movie. Some of these strange things are very intriguing. Melissa Leftridge is much more than she seems and is working for her own purposes. When she discovers some part of the experiments (creepy hybrid living fetuses in jars, yay!) she does what she can to hide them from the other.

What’s missing… is a lot. Primarily, the film is aimless. The movie is wildly overstuffed with characters and potential subplots. I was surprised that it wasn’t based on a novel, since there are so many threads that are not taken up. I am not surprised that there are five credited screenwriters.

The Kindred has a science fiction underpinning that is not dealt with seriously for an instant. The genetic hybrids have some connection to undersea creatures, but it’s not explained in a way that makes any dramatic sense. There’s romantic rivalry, academic rivalry, the strange family relationship between Hollins and his mother… and it is all left unexplored.

Eventually, at least, we get a monster with tentacles that attacks people. Some of the attacks are fun, if unimaginatively shot. The monster itself looks a lot more menacing in still production shots than in action on screen. All of these scientists and grad students fall into its clutches by acting as stupidly as any horror movie victim.

What’s frustrating is that The Kindred feels like something smart ought to be going on. Rival geneticists creating hybrids. There should be some sort of intellectual game going on. But it’s just the normal horror movie action: character wanders off, character gets killed. Some very unexpected developments happen with the Melissa character. She ends up a special effects extravaganza that makes little sense but looks awesome.

However, The Kindred is ultimately a disappointment as a practical effects showcase. There are some good scenes with scary tentacles and hybrid-fetuses screaming in jars. But a bunch of limbs bursting out of a watermelon is just kind of stupid. And the story is weirdly simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked. Too much and not enough go on, all at the same time. Parts of the climax seem particularly desperate when goo is randomly sprayed on scenery and characters alike, as if its presence would make up for the story being inadequately told.

The Kindred has been released on Blu-ray by Synapse films. Extras include a commentary by the directors Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter; “Inhuman Experiments” (52 min), a documentary about the film; a compilation of footage of creature effects (18 min); and stills and trailers.

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Kent Conrad

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