"When I find my prince... This is the song we're going to dance to at my wedding. But you're not him. You're just another FROG!"
2009's The Loved Ones is a delirious Australian mash-up of various movies, including Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Prom Night and Pretty in Pink, with perhaps a slight dash of Mad Max also thrown in for good measure. Several critics have also dubbed The Loved Ones as "Pretty in Pink meets Wolf Creek", and that's another fairly accurate analogy of this frightening yet resonant exercise in genre dramatics - it represents an amalgam of teen alienation issues with serial killer film lore and torture porn tendencies. In an era beset with ineffective, toned-down, politically-correct horror movies, writer-director Sean Byrne stuck to his guns with The Loved Ones in order to deliver a visceral, disturbing, compellingly watchable, fiercely original blast of film terror.
A high school student named Brent (Samuel) is a depressed shell of his former self who's prone to self-abuse after being the driver in the car accident which killed his father. Struggling to cope with his life as well as his mother's emotional collapse, the one bright spot of Brent's existence is his girlfriend Holly (Thaine). Brent plans to take Holly to the end-of-school dance, but the meek, awkward school loner Lola (McLeavy) asks Brent to be her date. Brent politely declines, but this unfortunately turns out to be the biggest mistake he's ever made. See, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. The unhinged Lola kidnaps Brent with the assistance of her equally unhinged father (Brumpton) in order for Lola to have her own special night with Brent...
The Loved Ones definitely succeeds as an unnerving horror movie, but it's also a crafty, effective "race against the clock" kidnapping thriller. By distilling the plot to its bare essentials and refusing to bog down the proceedings in extraneous exposition, writer-director Byrne has crafted a lean, taut and disturbing scare-a-thon. Throughout the film, Byrne contrasts the horrors of Brent's ordeal against the night being had between Brent's friend Jamie (Wilson) and the school's resident "Goth girl" Mia (McNamee). To some, this subplot may seem extraneous, but it relieves the tension at strategic moments in addition to highlighting the tragic fact that Brent is unable to have a memorable night with his beloved girlfriend. While making the film, Byrne's self-professed mantra was "If you don't care, you don't scare". Accordingly, he created real characters you can care about, and as a result the film is intense and gripping throughout.
In addition, The Loved Ones follows in the tradition of such films as Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wolf Creek in the sense that it exploits the fear that on the fringes of civilisation there are poor, disturbed people who get their kicks from torture and murder. If you're even remotely squeamish, you had better skip The Loved Ones - this is a highly disturbing, gory horror outing. The gore effects are stomach-churningly real, and you will likely squirm in your seat and cover your eyes at certain points. Eventually a trapdoor unleashes the full force of Lola's house of terror, and the surreal universe assumes a nightmarish sense of the macabre. This stunning reveal was handled with a commendable self-assuredness that belies Byrne's lack of feature film experience. In addition to the harrowing and disconcerting content, inspired strokes of dark comedy emanate from both the audacity of the violence as well as the supplemental story about Mia and Jamie. Topping this off is Simon Chapman's crisp cinematography which is permeated with mood, and the well-chosen soundtrack. The film even makes unforgettable, haunting use of Kasey Chambers' song Am I Not Pretty Enough?.
In the role of Brent, Xavier Samuel is eminently likable. It's easy to root for him to escape throughout his ordeal, and thus cheer each time he strikes back at Lola and her father. The real star of the show is, undoubtedly, Robin McLeavy as Lola. McLeavy has created a screen psychopath that can easily rank alongside Norman Bates, Patrick Bateman and Annie Wilkes. Due to the passion and focus McLeavy brought to the role, the performance transcends that of a one-note monster. Particularly brilliant is the way she seems so quiet, shy and easy to miss at school, but her true colours come bursting through once Brent is in her clutches. Meanwhile, John Brumpton is fantastic and darkly humorous as the very sick Eric Stone (Lola's father) who has a borderline incestuous relationship with his daughter. The chemistry between McLeavy and Brumpton is strong, and it rings true that they love and need one another. Also of note in the cast are Richard Wilson and Jessica McNamee as Jamie and Mia (respectively), both of whom are believable in their roles. Rounding out the main cast is Victoria Thaine who functions as a beacon of warmth playing Brent's girlfriend Holly.
Admittedly, a few stupidities are littered throughout The Loved Ones, most notably that it's a tad unrealistic that Brent still has strength despite enduring so much torture. The final scene is amazingly cheesy as well. This aside, The Loved Ones is a solid Aussie horror offering. There are so few contemporary horror films that actually have something to say, but The Loved Ones manages to do just that. It has been imbued with relevant social implications, including the repercussions of grief, the indestructible hold that parents and children have on each other, and the fiery wrath of high school females. This subtext speaks to the universal nature of high school experiences. After all, high school girls are among the most emotionally volatile creatures on the planet, and high school boys must constantly try to avoid igniting the powder keg of drama. This is emphasised by the fact that Brent is nice and respectful to the shy, seemingly harmless Lola, but nonetheless pays dearly for rejecting her. The film is therefore an exaggerated depiction of the instability of teenage emotional states.