Upon seeing the new trailer recently, I instantly remembered The Loved Ones. It was a movie I was excited to see after hearing the buzz out of TIFF (where it won the Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award – in 2009!), but had all but forgotten all about it. Available outside of North America for at least a year, this Australian nightmare is finally set to launch to a much wider audience in the States. But after all this time, is the film still worth a look?
Lola (Robin McLeavy) is a bit of a social outcast. She asks Brent (Xavier Samuel) to the prom, and is turned down pretty flat. Of course, this is mostly because Brent is already going with his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine). Later that day, Brent is drugged and kidnapped. When he comes to, he is tied up at the dinner table inside Lola’s house, with her and her Daddy (John Brumpton) waiting for him at the table. And while the house is dressed up in prom theme, they seem to have some other revenge-worthy plans of their own.
While the story is a bit padded out and mostly filler (more on that in a few moments), The Loved Ones is surprisingly just as sick, twisted and brutal as the trailer makes it appear to be. When a movie makes you truly cringe in pain, simply at the idea of something happening, you know you are watching something truly special.
With the so-called “torture porn” genre quickly going the way of the dodo, first time writer/director Sean Bryne has crafted a unique film that blends the best elements of the genre, and helps invent new ones. He knows just when to throw in a laugh, and knows even better when to up the terror and suspense. There were moments I simply could not look away for fear of missing what Bryne wanted to throw at the audience next. The film is nothing short of a wild roller coaster, and thankfully, the set-up does not outweigh the payoff.
McLeavy, who will be seen later this summer in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is nothing short of bat-shit crazy as Lola. She is deliriously evil in the role and an absolutely menacing a figure in each scene she appears in. Just looking at her expressions and body language are enough to terrify, but watching her in action, directing and getting her way at any cost, is simply astonishing.
She drives every moment in the film, and even during the film’s most grotesque moments, she still remains the scariest thing about it. Brumpton is a little less believable as the nutty Daddy character (simply because he is sadly underplayed), but compliments her performance at every turn. While her role is very over-the-top, Brumpton is a lot more subtle in his turn and says a lot more by simply not saying anything at all. I just wish he got more to do, and gave a little more depth instead of being stuck as a leering presence.
While not nearly as commited as McLeavy, Samuel does excellent work as the film’s main protagonist. He is a little bit of an angsty and all too stereotypical teenager at the beginning of the film, but once the film gets going and Lola begins her revenge, his performance becomes ridiculously riveting. He spends most of the film muted, due to a rather ingenious plot device. While it is one thing to listen to someone screaming and pleading for help, it is quite another to watch helpless expressions of terror. Samuel does his best, and I feel it added a unique level of shock and tension that is sorely missing from modern horror. He sells his plight right up until the very end, and would have been the film’s highlight had McLeavy not been as good as she is. I just wish that the supporting cast was nearly as good, as opposed to next to useless.
Near brilliant performances aside, I feel Byrne’s biggest mistake is that the story is simply too lean to really suffice its running time. It makes mere nods and mentions to a greater overarching story, and leaves plenty of room for more insight on the insanity of the father/daughter dynamic. But it does nothing with them – almost every idea goes basically nowhere.
There’s a nice and ever so convenient tie-in to the startling opening moments of the film near the close, but even that remains hanging in the balance mere seconds afterwards, totally unresolved. I am all for the immediate focus on Brent’s struggle to escape from Lola, so why bother adding all these ideas that amount to nothing? Do they simply exist to pad out the story, and delay the moments between the brutal torture scenes? For such a fast paced film, it left me feeling like it was much too quick on the delivery, never allowing us to truly catch up to where it is at any given time.
As a debut feature, The Loved Ones is an admirable and truly horrific picture. There are some fairly inventive scenes at play simply to make you cringe in agony alongside our main character, and a lot more suspense than I ever would have thought. There are some brave moments where it goes places I did not think it would even dare, but just as many more that go absolutely nowhere. It is a bit of a mixed bag that could have used more depth, but the roller coaster ride Bryne puts the audience through is more than enough to satisfy bloodthirsty horror fans. And hey, I am sure an American remake could just be a phone call away.
According to Tugg.com (a site that Paramount is using to set up screenings in a similar way to the “Demand It” program for the original Paranormal Activity), there are 6 screenings across the United States starting this Friday with more on the way based on fan demand. Sadly, there are no plans to bring the film to Canada at this time.
There is clearly a lot of ambition to The Loved Ones and the near-brilliant leading performances help make the film a unique and terrifying experience.