Written and Directed by: Sean Byrne
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, and Victoria Thaine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďBring the hammer, Daddy."
Apparently, they do things a little differently Down Under. Instead of throwing proms that give its teenagers an excuse to engage in various forms of debauchery, its schools hold ďEnd of YearĒ dances. However, if The Loved Ones is any indication, the result is largely the same if these gatherings are the setting for a horror movie, as they end with some of the participants maimed or splattered all over the place, their dreams of dancing the night away danced by some murderous psychopath (or spurned, telekinetic outcastóyou especially gotta watch out for those).
The Loved Ones actually concerns one of the spurned ones: on the eve of the yearly dance, wallflower Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) has her eyes on Brent (Xavier Samuel), a brooding boy who has been carrying the guilt of his fatherís death in a car accident six months earlier. Brentís already spoken for, though, as he intends to attend the dance with his steady girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thaine). Undeterred, Lola enlists her father (John Brumpton) to abduct her would-be boy toy to the family abode, where the duo are throwing their own demented partyóand Brent quickly (and painfully) discovers heís the guest of honor.
In the Aussie tradition, Sean Byrne plays it rough, as his feature debut is an unrelentingly savage film that recalls its vicious Ozploitation predecessors. The Loved Ones also unfolds in the shadow of a decade defined by ďtorture porn,Ē a term I generally use loosely. However, this one looks set to earn that description early on when Byrne unflinchingly captures Lola and her fatherís horrific treatment of Brent, an ordeal that finds the poor boy tied, gagged, drugged, beaten, and nailed to the floor. When the episode seemingly culminates with Lola carving her initials into his chest and literally throwing salt on the wound, itís hard not to see this as pure, unadulterated exploitation and actual torture porn since it hammers viewers over the head so early and so forcefully.
As is often the case, though, saddling it with such a label is unfairly reductive. Its violence is the unavoidable surface text, but it hardly feels gratuitous once you slowly realize how sorry you feel for this poor guy. Not only does Samuel bring a lot of pathos to an underwritten role, but Byrne also grounds the violence in a manner that keeps it genuinely disturbing and cringe inducing. None of it is played for awe or gross-out moments, nor is it particularly delightful or fun. That said, the movie is (remarkably) not a beat down; Byrne is much more interested in crafting a solidly suspenseful film with compelling characters and intriguing themes. Beneath the veneer of torture and bloodshed, thereís a really well-crafted horror movie operating here, complete with some incredible nail-biting sequences and an escalating plot that becomes increasingly bizarre as you realize just what Lola and her dad have been up to for years.
That duo is the center of the filmís gravity, and Byrne wisely avoids shedding too much light on their motivations. From the information provided, itís easy to glean that these two are supremely unhinged; in addition to abducing Lolaís potential love interests (itís revealed that Brent is just the latest in a line of doomed guys), theyíre also kept company by a semi-comatose woman nicknamed ďBright Eyes.Ē Perhaps even more disturbing is the uncomfortable sexual tension between the two. When her father gives her a new dress, Lola canít wait to try it on in front of him, and the weird old bastard canít help but leer at her. He might be the most intriguing character in the film since Brumpton injects him with an unspoken sense of conscience or guilt; you might expect him to be the ringleader, but Lola is a true daddyís girl thatís got him wrapped around her finger.
McLeavy is incredible as Lola, the wannabe prom queen whose bubblegum pop laden bedroom conceals her psychosis. Again, the character isnít written with any perceivable depth, and McLeavy essentially goes from zero to sixty right out the gateóthereís an early scene where sheís introduced as the obviously awkward outcast looking to ask Brent to the dance. That sweet girl is nowhere to be found for the rest of the film, as McLeavy gives a ferocious performance that still finds an odd, subtle sense of pity in the character. Sheís an interesting twist on the social outcast, and I suppose this is what happens when Ally Sheedy attempts to become Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club out of some desperation to conform to a typical teenaged perception of beauty. We canít all be the Prom Queen, but donít tell that to Lola.
Byrne has fun contorting with those types of expectations since various characters arenít exactly what they exactly appear to be at first. Many of them are connected by a shared sense of tragedy; some arenít immediately known, while others (such as what would drive Lola and her dad to this) are barely hinted at, but the title slowly shifts from ironic (in reference to Lolaís various victims) to unironic when it becomes clear that Brent, who has spent the past six months engaging in self-mutilation, must survive this ordeal to realize how much he as to live for (The Loved Ones borrows a page from Oz brethren Saw in this respect). Despite the filmís blunt force trauma approach, it reveals much of this in slow burn fashion with a seemingly unconnected side story involving Brentís buddy and his date, who proceeds to get shit-faced and engage in self-destructive behavior. Sometimes, these interludes break the tension a bit, but they eventually circle back to the main narrative in satisfying fashion.
Once everything finally starts to lock into place, itís clear that Byrne has crafted a magnificent little puzzle box thatís full of slick gore, hand-wringing suspense, and even a dash of black humor out of the Texas Chainsaw mold. Itís all wrapped up in Byrneís glossy filmmaking sensibilities; like the Ozploitation masters before him, he has a penchant for gorgeously rendering the macabre by setting it against evocative landscapes and drenching it in a candy colored aesthetic. Itís basically a dazzling, glimmering prom night dragged through the rough and tumble Outback before itís sent straight to hell.
Contrary to its title, The Loved Ones didnít receive much affection from Paramount, as the studio snatched up its distribution rights a few years ago before sitting on it. While it found its way into a few theaters last year, it was essentially dumped straight to video last fall with a DVD release that could be considered adequate at best. Save for some interviews with McLeavy, Samuel, and an effects coordinator, the extras are pretty sparse; the presentation at least pushes the limits of the DVD format, but itís a shame this film hasnít made it to Blu-ray. If the format is still around in the next five years, I expect that might change: The Loved Ones feels destined to become a cult classic and deservedly so. Buy it!
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