Since its inception, horror has given us monsters and extreme scenarios as a means of critiquing real-world fears. In Get Out, Jordan Peele exposed anti-Black racism and false allyship with the added oomph of the possession subgenre. In Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski invoked cult horror to showcase the evils of patriarchy over pregnancy. Now, Kindred strides in these footsteps, speaking to similar themes. However, co-writer/director Joe Marcantonio rejects working in flashy elements of the paranormal. Instead, the true terror comes from real world horror.
Written by Marcantonio and Jason McColgan, Kindred follows Charlotte (a mesmerizing Tamara Lawrance), a Black woman living in rural England who is ready to set off for a new home with her partner Ben (a scruffy yet charming Edward Holcroft). Charlotte is an outsider on several levels. She is not from this remote village. She’s a vegan politely eating bland quiche amid meat-eaters. And, she is the only Black face in a sea of white ones. But Ben gets her. Still, she longs to move to Australia, where the hooks of Ben’s possessive mother (an electrifying Fiona Shaw) can no longer intrude.
While Ben’s family is not openly racist toward Charlotte, his mother Margaret regards her coolly as a non-entity. When discussing the couple’s plans to move, Margaret tells Ben “the two of us” will speak about it later, sharply cutting Charlotte from the consideration. This is one a many red flags that this clan doesn’t respect Charlotte or accept her autonomy. Matters only grow worse when they discover she’s pregnant with “Ben’s baby.”
Whether Charlotte wants to keep the fetus is not a question to Margaret and her devoted stepson Thomas (a hangdog Jack Lowden). Presumptions are made on Charlotte’s behalf. Her doctor is chosen. Her housing is changed. With each, her world grows smaller. She is stripped of her phone, her shoes, and her right to leave the family grounds, all with the insistence that momma Margaret knows best.
Charlotte is no shrinking violet like poor bullied and betrayed Rosemary. She realizes early what’s going on and strives to fight for her freedom. However, this family has wealth, reputation, and resources. All she has is her own voice, which can’t be heard behind the thick wooden doors of the isolated manor. Plus, she keeps passing out, waking with no memory of what came before.
The terror in this film comes not from mind-bending body-snatcher reveals or trippy demonic revelations. There are no jump scares or jolting set pieces. The scares are born in what we’re not shown, because we—like Charlotte—are not given full access to the house or this family. She slips in and out of consciousness, falling into foreboding premonitions of crows and a black stallion then waking up to new nightmarish restrictions. Through this, Marcantonio brews dread that sinks us into Charlotte’s mental state as her body blooms against her will.
What makes Kindred all the more chilling is that it could be based on a slew of experiences from Black patients seeking medical care. There’s a long history of abuses of Black patients, including J. Marion Sims’s cruel experiments, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and the nonconsensual cell harvesting of Henrietta Lacks. Yet the role of implicit bias in healthcare is one that is still being exposed. A study from 2016 revealed that medical students believed Black people didn’t experience pain as intensely as white people. This year, there’s a push to correct a long-standing racial adjustment that has prevented untold Black people from getting approved for kidney transplants. In 2018, Serena Williams went public with the racial biases she faced in receiving proper healthcare during her pregnancy.
Kindred puts audiences into the shoes of a Black woman experiencing this disorienting blend of condescension, gaslighting, and medical malpractice. Its writers trust Charlotte’s story is disturbing enough without working in gore or the perturbing panache that some horror fans might crave. Instead, an intimate and slow-burn approach with sophisticated restraint offers an entrancing journey.
The set design reeks of rot, with rusted furniture, peeling paint, and sickly colors of green and yellow trapping Charlotte at every turn of the elegant but souring manor. The score is spare, emerging as a means of giving voice to her panic and plight. Moaning strings express her fear and self-doubt. Then, piano music (like that favored by Thomas) consumes all sound, swallowing up even Charlotte’s full-mouthed screams of revolt. Into this, Lawrance is a grounding force, drawing us in with her penetrating stare and guarded expression. We watch her Charlotte code-switch depending on who she is forced to appease for common decency. She is warm to Thomas, stern with Margaret, and earnest with any ear that might truly hear her. Most powerfully, we witness flashes of her righteous outrage over how she must grovel for what should already be hers.
Through all this, Marcantonio slowly turns the screw, pulling Charlotte tighter and tighter into a knot of seeming paranoia and hysteria. The horror comes from us knowing full well she’s not mad, and she’s not alone. In short, Kindred is a ragged cry of rebellion, calling out to the flock to join forces against the darkness. It’s creepy, compelling, and distinctly haunting. Seek it out.
Kindred is now in select theaters, on VOD, and on digital.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: IFC Midnight