Recently I had the pleasure to check out this little beauty from 2009. I’ve sadly been lagging behind in catching most of the brutal and masterfully crafted horror flicks that have graced the silver screen in the last few years. This is one of the largest disadvantages of no longer living in the US. I’m no longer in touch (or range for that matter) with the happening film festivals that seem to hit regularly state-side, and the annual festival we have here in the Netherlands always seem to come up at a time when money is short but films are in bloom. Thus, I find myself reviewing films from 2009 during late 2012. Shame on me, right? Well they say longing makes the heart grow fonder, and this is exactly the situation I found myself in with The Loved Ones.
Where to begin with The Loved Ones? Well, let’s begin with the beginning, I guess. Here’s a quick plot synopsis to keep you up to speed on what you can expect: Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) is a deeply troubled teenager after having to cope with being responsible for his father’s death in a car accident. With the help of his goofy friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) and stunning girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine), Brent is able to live his life in relative happiness. He’s young, attractive, and darkly mysterious. In a sense, he’s everything Lola (Robin McLeavy) wants. And what Lola wants…Lola gets. Things heat up as Lola asks Brent to the prom, but he unfortunately has to gently let her down by reminding her of his girlfriend. The rest of the film splits into a vile tale of torture as Lola does everything in her power to get her dance with Brent, and an endearing teenage dramady as Jamie lands a date with the hot goth chick at school, Mia (Jessica McNamee).
Sounds like fun, right? Well it is! It’s a heaping of fun, but with just enough unbearable cruelty to keep you glued to your seat. Perhaps what makes The Loved Ones so effective is the film’s emotional drive. This isn’t just another torture porn flick. This one has heart. From Brent’s inner and outer torture, to Lola’s initial dejection, there is at least one moment where every character in the film comes across as sympathetic and human. However, this is very short lived for some characters, which establishes their position in the film’s narrative really well. You really root for Brent to get the hell out of his unfortunate situation, and for Jamie to get to third base with Mia at the prom. This effect can be attributed to great acting across the board. Samuel’s depiction of Brent’s deep-seeded troubles is well versed and just emo enough to empathize with the character rather than chastise him. Similarly, you really feel Holly’s desperation to find her boyfriend due to Thaine’s riveting and realistic performance. She’s both sweet and smart. What isn’t there to love about that in a girl? But, as seems to be a trend as of late, the real powerhouse performance here comes from McLeavy’s portrayal of the sugary sweet and vile Lola. This is Lola’s show, and she eats up the screen much like she eats up her chicken…without mercy. As I said before, there are moments where you truly feel sympathy for young Lola. These moments, though, are only very early into the picture. After Lola gets Brent into her grasp there isn’t an iota of empathy left for her. By the film’s amazing finale, you’ll only want one thing: to see Lola’s head on a pike. This is a testament to McLeavy’s wide ranging performance. She can make you feel for her in one second and feel nothing but disgust in the next. I’d say McLeavy is definitely a young actress to keep an eye on. If she keeps it up like this, we may have a newly unexpected cinematic flower blossoming from Down Under. Now let’s just hope she keeps her sights on films in the horror genre (we could use some legit scream queens).
Now that I’ve got the story and performances out of the way, let’s dive into how the film looks. The short answer is: it looks good. I mean, it looks REALLY good. The Loved Ones has some of the best clarity I’ve seen in a while. Where there be shadows, there truly be creeping and sprawling blacks. Where there be color, there truly be a vibrant color pallet for the eye to feast upon. Every detail is left for you to inspect and cringe from. Not only does the camera quality impress, so does the choice in cinematography and special effects. There are some truly unsettling moments in this film which owe their impact strictly to the great special effects. When the blood comes gushing out, it pours. When flesh is sliced, it’s torn. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t anything like Saw films of yore. This, I dare say, is even more graphic in some ways, and yet more subtle in others. Just know that the gore doesn’t disappoint, but neither does it distract. It does exactly what it was intended to do, it elicits a direct response from the audience. Whether the intended response is repulsion, empathy, or plain out pain, you feel it. Likewise, the camera angles and shots are superb. Director/writer, Sean Byrne has done a marvelous job bringing his screenplay to life. All of the characters really feel real and complex, as does the world in which the film is set. There are beautiful shots of Australia’s open landscape coupled with claustrophobic scenes in complete darkness. You also feel Brent’s torture (both physical and mental) through the crafty camerawork. For being Byrne’s first feature film, The Loved Ones sets a pretty high bar to be met later in his career. Let’s hope that he, like Ti West, is up to the challenge and helps shape our beloved genre further.
Now we find ourselves at an important, but often overlooked aspect of filmmaking…sound. I’m a pretty big sound enthusiast where film is concerned. Sure, I don’t really know the difference between one technical tweak than the other, but I know what I like to hear in a film. The Loved Ones is one of those films that has exactly the type of sound I want pumping out of my surround sound system. Just as deep blacks are preferred in image clarity, so too is a deep bass in a film’s soundscape (in my opinion). Part of the atmosphere of a film is it’s sweeping sound design, and with horror I like to hear a nice rumble when the bass kicks in. Well, luckily for me, this film does just that. The music played by Brent when feeling particularly rebellious screeches at you in a swirl of teenage angst, while the film’s score plays with your senses and gets you on edge. One particular moment, when Brent finds himself in a very unexpected location, possesses such great rumbling bass that it makes you wish the scene would end…and soon. This isn’t to say that it’s overwhelming or a bad seen. On the contrary, the sound is so well placed and so menacing that it enhances an already foreboding scene. So make no mistake, The Loved Ones packs a punch in literally all departments.
So, final thoughts? Overall opinion? The Loved Ones> is great! I know that the whole torture angle has been played out to death (pun intended) in the horror genre, but this one’s different than your standard affair. Yes there’s torture, and yes there’s an excessive amount of cringe-worthy moments, but the film maintains a sense of heart that keeps it going like an energizer battery. Also, the film’s pace is pretty perfect. This is far from a slow burn, but also nowhere near fast paced. It’s like a good bath: just right. Now, if you’re really not into the whole torture thing, this may not be the ideal film for you. Just know that there is actually a method to this madness, and by the end of the film you’ll be treated with a very satisfying result. And for you lovers of twists and turns, there are still some of those slipped into this otherwise straightforward tale. Yet, the twists are so subtle that they aren’t overplayed or irritating for those who like their horror as is. In any case The Loved Ones feels like a true win-win for horror fans of all types…well except the types who only like bad films because of how “ironic” it is. Sorry, there is nothing here for you folks to enjoy, because this a genuinely good film. My only complaint is that I hadn’t seen it sooner. And for you naysayers who may disagree with me, in the disturbing words of Lola herself, “We can’t hear you!”
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