The Loved Ones is a modest, simple and somewhat flawed film, the type easily bruised by hype, so in discussing it I do my best to avoid hyperbole. But it’s tough not to get a little excited when talking about The Loved Ones. This is a nasty little straight up horror film that has its teeth out. After all this scrappy little genre film is more or less exactly what I have been asking for; blissfully un-self referential and deeply unimpressed by its status as a horror film. The Loved Ones is the type of film where one sits up shocked twenty minutes in and goes, “Holy shit, they actually mean this.”
The film centers around Brent, a young Australian teen still reeling from the death of his Father; who died a the previous year in a car accident that happened with Brent behind the wheel. It’s the end of the school year and Brent is getting ready to go to Prom with his long time girlfriend, when he’s kidnapped by the school’s psychotic wallflower and her equally bent Father. Both of whom are dedicated to making sure that Brent suffers the worse prom night since the kids in Carrie.
What proceeds is basically the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stretched to feature length. Brent wakes up tied to a chair surrounded by Lola, Daddy and a near catatonic women with a hole in her head, a good omen this is not. And just as your settling in for something self aware and jokey, holy shit the film abruptly gets nasty. The Loved Ones takes on the leering intensity of its psychopathic MCs and becomes a grotesque grueling endurance test that ended up going much further than I expected it to go and had the courage to carry through on it’s implications. The situation might not be anything new, indeed it is pointedly old school, but so is its approach. At no point in time does Brent pause in his torturous struggle for survival to remark that when you think about it, this situation is a lot like one of those horror movies that you always see. Lola does not pause in the thralls of her sadistic sickness to remark which film she is emulating. There are no cute easter eggs, no cameos from aging horror stars taking a break from the convention circuit, to deliver a wink and a nudge as things get started. The film even does you the courtesy of assuming that you are watching in order to see Brent survive rather than to see Lola and her Father kill a bunch of folks. In short it plays things on the level and is of course all the more rewarding for it.
The film does have it’s own set of problems, for one at a pretty svelte 82 minutes it contains one of the most egregiously filler subplots I have ever seen in a film in which Brent’s schlubby friend (with whom he shares a grand total of one scene) romances an improbably hot goth girl. Though the subplot actually ends up providing some surprising shading to the film, acknowledging the massive collateral damage that any sort of killing can have, that doesn’t change the fact that for roughly twenty minutes of its runtime it feels as if Byrne is abruptly cutting to a different film. There are also a few moments of sub Rob Zombie cartoonishness that break the mood. It also must be said that the film perhaps goes a bridge too far in its pursuit of topping itself. Though the big final revelation does provide a hell of a kick in the moment, and sets up an absolutely excruciating scene involving a homemade lobotomy performed with a drill bit and a carafe of boiling water, it also pushes the film into the realm of gothic horror, and gives the suspension of disbelief of good healthy whack on its way out the door. As said it provides a hell of a kick in the moment, but I can’t help but think that it will hurt the film in repeat viewings, becoming a little harder to swallow each time. Then again this complaint is probably superceded by the fact that the film warrants repeat viewings.
After all its tough to hold such missteps against a film that does so much right, Byrne is a clever plotter, that he creates not just one, but multiple “This can’t get any worse- dear God it just got worse” moments. And while he does engage in a bit of teenage histrionics from time to time, he plays both Lola and her father disarmingly straight. Deeply twisted but still recognizably human psychopaths, as frustrated by the day to day concerns of the world (in one of the best moments Daddy pauses in thwarting an aborted escape attempt to check the damage on his car) as they are by who is trying to escape their torture dungeon this week.
Some have accused the film of being torture porn, and while I can see where such accusations are coming from, most of the films runtime is devoted to a helpless victim at the mercy of two psychopaths who inflict bodily harm on him after all, I think it’s safe to say that the film stays sharply on the right side of The Jack Ketchum line of demarcation. For one thing the film is unmistakably from Brent’s perspective and though he certainly goes through a hell of a lot (and has a hoarse enough cry of pain to maybe qualify as the first true “Scream King”) the film is very careful about what it shows versus what it suggests, for every big gore moment that the film shows, as the wince inducing scene where Brent has his feet nailed to the floor, there is another that it implies or cuts away from (thus necessitating the schlubby best friend’s John Hughes antics). Also given as mentioned that the film spends such a large section of its runtime exploring the damage done by its characters actions, both immediate (Brent takes a lot more damage than you might think, at the end of the film I couldn’t help but wish that they had skipped the heartwarming hug with his mother and rushed him to the bloody hospital) and long reaching. The film is in a large sense all about what losing someone does to a person, whether in a split second accident, or in a drawn awful way.
So what we have here is a horror film with a wicked sense of plotting, a real nasty instict for a gut punch of a moment, a sharp eye for staging said same and an ultimate sense of consequence that both demands your investment in its characters but achieves it? Is it any wonder that warts and all it makes the parade of tired found footage movies, anemic PG-13 horror films, in joke based pastiches and remakes that we’ve been treated to over this past year look more than a little anemic?