Rivalry cycles regularly through the horror genre, depicting embittered siblings vying for power against terrifying backdrops. Portrayals found in “hagsploitation” classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and the clinical eroticism of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) offered fascinating glimpses into dysfunction and the neurosis arising from family conflict, while Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982), and Jee-woon Kim’s Janghwa, Hongryeon/ A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) examined guilt, jealousy, and sexual themes using deformed monsters and ghastly spirits to drive atypical narratives. Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter’s The Kindred (1987) is bonded by the same blood, presenting an outrageous mad scientist movie brimming with astounding creatures, forged from a core of familial strife.
The Kindred arrived on the heels of Cronenberg’s bold vision for The Fly (1986), a film whose enormous critical and financial success opened the floodgates for a revival of cinematic mad scientists whose twisted pursuits resulted in gruesome and tragic ends. This wave included special effects-laden creature features like Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), Brian Yuzna’s grisly Bride of Re-Animator (1989), and Glen Takakjian’s cheap but charming Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor (1990). The creators of The Kindred built upon the science-gone-awry foundation popular in the era, tackling sibling rivalry with a scheming ensemble of characters, gene-splicing hybridization, and the ruthless competition inherent in the scientific community as their backdrop for a slimy tentacled-creature extravaganza.
The story follows a promising young geneticist named John Hollins (David Allen Brooks) who dreams his study of prions might lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s and other perplexing brain disorders. On her deathbed, his rapidly ailing mother and esteemed scientific researcher, Amanda (the iconic Kim Hunter), confesses to an abandoned home experiment she performed, in which John was an integral part. In her throes, she also reveals the existence of a brother he’s never known called “Anthony.” At Amanda’s behest, John returns to their isolated family home to destroy all evidence of her experiments. However, Amanda’s former friend and colleague, the conniving Dr. Phillip Lloyd (Rod Steiger), is in search of Amanda’s journal and plans to extract her secrets to incorporate into his own cruel experiments involving animal and human hybrids.
John arrives at the house with a team of assistants who’ve volunteered to help him sort the estate and lend moral support. They are joined by Melissa (Amanda Pays), a mysterious researcher influenced by Amanda’s work involving sea creatures, and who harbors her own troubling past. A series of attacks occur on the property, leading to the discovery of a deadly presence lurking on the grounds: the monstrous Anthony emerging from hiding, writhing with tentacles, gnashing teeth, and a feral compulsion to protect his lair. John discovers that Anthony was created by his mother using John’s own DNA, which has been spliced with the genes of a sea creature, the hemocyanin. John decides to burn everything, the house included, but Anthony is not ready to give up the safe haven where he’s remained safely hidden away.
Rivalries are woven throughout the film’s structure. Selfish and petty acts occur frequently in the form of snide comments, boastful posturing, sabotage, and betrayal, severely straining the interpersonal relationships of these frenemies. A colleague of John’s remarks that a fellow researcher “looks like a well-poisoner.” John himself is tempted to kiss Melissa, though he’s in a relationship with his assistant Sharon (Talia Balsam). Steiger’s Dr. Lloyd is an especially loathsome opportunist driven to madness by his ambition. His methods range from goading Amanda with threats while she is in critical condition, inciting her death in the process. In the early goings, he lures a greedy extortionist into his basement where the man is dispatched by one of the grotesque failed “subjects” Lloyd has stashed underground. Steiger, awarded for scene-stealing histrionics in films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), lends a frenzied edge to his character that keeps spirits high among the film’s sober notes.
Obrow and Carpenter teamed up for spirited cult oddities, the college slasher The Dorm that Dripped Blood/Pranks/Death Dorm (1982) and the demon-possessed terror of The Power (1984). Though five screenwriters share credit, The Kindred maintains an even tone and surprising cohesion, and makes an earnest attempt at complex drama. Most importantly, they imbue The Kindred with an unexpected streak of tenderness that soothes the usual excesses of effects-driven horror, resulting in a surprisingly somber piece that treats its monsters with sympathy (especially witnessed alongside the unsavory behavior of its human characters). A melancholy opening theme by composer David Newman enhances this point with a melancholy leitmotif that permeates the film from beginning to end. The score contrasts starkly with the many cacophonous scores that were a fixture of mid-to-late 80’s action-horror following James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and a string of imitators.
The Kindred boasts wonderfully slimy and grotesque effects by Michael John McKraken and a talented team, including squishy embryonic beasts, a gaggle of mutants kept in a subterranean holding cell, an amphibious transformation, and the impressive full-sized Anthony in all its tentacled glory. These creatures are repulsive in appearance, but imbued with pathos. John reflects on Anthony’s namesake, their mother’s favorite saint, Anthony of Padua, who was devoted to the poor and sick. Though her misguided pursuit of science resulted in birthing hideous mutations, her intent to help the sick remained resolute. Her behavior toward Anthony, too, is not malicious in nature, but rather a realization that she’s made a terrible mistake. Wary of others following suit, she requests a merciful end for Anthony, tragically at the hands of his own flesh and blood. We learn too that Amanda sang a lullaby (the same melody as Newman’s score) to calm Anthony during his frequent rages, the same tune used to lull John as a rambunctious child. A recording of the soothing tune eventually helps rescue some characters from horrible ends.
These details earn The Kindred a deeper appraisal beyond its labeling as a ham-handed retread of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) or an Alien (1979) clone. While it’s certainly guilty of borrowing from those works, the melding of dramatic dynamics within a cavalcade of slimy monsters should please discerning monster mavens who might be surprised by its underlying humanity.