Australia. 84 minutes. Directed by Sean Byrne, 2009. Starring Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, Victoria Thane, Jessica McNamee, Richard Wilson, John Brumpton.
Brent is a disturbed young student struggling with emotional issues in the wake of his father’s senseless death in an automobile accident, but his problems are about to get a lot more visceral when he turns down a request to take the sullen, unpopular Lola Stone to the End of School Dance. It turns out that Lola won’t take no for an answer, and her daddy doesn’t like it when his little princess is denied any of her desires. Lola and her daddy decide to stage their own dance and kidnap Brent to be her date. While Lola instigates some pretty extreme methods to keep Brent in line, his friends and family search frantically for him. Will they rescue him in time to prevent him becoming Princess and Daddy’s latest victim?
I’m not going to deny that there’s about half of The Loved Ones that works exceptionally well. The scenes where Lola and Daddy stage an End of School Dance in their sitting-room, while a dazed Brent (hopped to the gills on…some sort of chemical, secured to a chair, a kitchen knife fixing his foot to the floor, and Lola’s initials carved into his chest) watches on, are some of the most memorable and nausea-inducing sequences I’ve seen in horror films from the last five or so years. Writer/director Sean Byrne shrinks away from the violence just a little, but he’s managed to distill what made the dinner sequence in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre work (it’s not hard to see Lola as the Hitchhiker, Daddy as the Chef and Bright Eyes as Grandpa…and, of course, we get to see the Leatherfaces in short order) and stretch it over about forty of the film’s nearly ninety minutes.
But there’s also an intense absurdity on the surface of what could be a typical “torture porn” scenario that burns these scenes into the brain. We’ve seen millions of unkempt freaks do this kind of shit over the past forty or fifty years, and so has Byrne, so he takes the radical step of putting the lead crazy in a hot pink prom gown and her right hand in a somewhat outmoded but still sharp-looking suit. It’s all set to Kacey Chambers’s “Not Pretty Enough,” a slice of whiny pop-country about unrequited love that would embarrass Taylor Swift if it were part of her repertoire.
It feels like Calvaire but looks like Pretty in Pink, and when Byrne plays this ironic combo of blood and kitsch to the hilt, The Loved Ones is like little else that’s being produced in the realm of horror cinema at the moment (what Gregg Bishop’s tiresome Dance of the Dead should have been), even when plot developments are obvious (of course the creatures locked in the Stone cellar are human, and of course the supporting-character cop is going to get plugged the minute he enters the house) and the characters do idiotic things that are going to end badly for them. It’s hardly perfect but it’s memorable enough to cross the line from “good” to “great” on sheer balls alone.
Pity, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it. Most of the dramatis personae are so thinly-drawn that they barely qualify as characters. This doesn’t hurt Lola and Daddy because they’ve got brilliant performances by Robin McLeavy and John Brumpton behind them, but most of the cast is just good enough to make their roles work. Neither Xavier Samuel (Brent), Victoria Thaine (Brent’s girlfriend Holly) or Richard Wilson (Brent’s best mate Jamie) put in performances that are bad per se, but neither are they able to invest their poorly-written characters with a spark of life. Brent, in particular, is supposed to be sensitive and a bit tragic, but Samuel is just too emo for all this.
The tonal shifts between the (for lack of a better term) torture sequences and the community’s search for Brent are also jarring, with Brent unable to balance the absurd violence with pathos. I don’t know what the fuck Byrne was reaching for when he decided to dedicate what felt like thirty minutes of screen time to a subplot involving Jamie going to the actual dance with Mia, a local goth girl with a substance abuse problem and a tendency to dispense hand jobs on the dance floor, but it’s a tiresome, dragging series of scenes that add nothing to the overall whole of the film. And the plotting relies on too many coincidences and forced connections to feel organic. (It turns out that the accident that killed Brent’s dad happened when Brent suddenly swerved to dodge a bloodied teenager in the road, and of course the boy turns out to be one of Lola’s victims. Another one of the victims is apparently Mia’s brother, which is why she’s turned to drugs and cheap sex for solace.)
When The Loved Ones works it works exceptionally goddamn well. Maybe I’m overstating it a bit to call those scenes “great” but I certainly enjoyed and engaged with them despite their flaws…in a stylistic sense, at least, Byrne located one of my horror sweet spots and applied some pressure. Sadly, there’s not too much going on beneath the surface, and it’s hard to get excited about anything that doesn’t happen on the Stone property. Still, Sean Byrne provides a good forty minutes of material that’s so memorable it justifies having to sit through the rest of the slop.