Beneath the chilling physical and emotional violence, Sean Byrne's beautifully twisted little romance The Loved Ones is arguably not really a horror film at all. It's horrifying, yes, occasionally sickeningly explicit, and it does play several of its pivotal moments for some very disturbing laughs. But it's also a surprisingly moving character drama which, though it tends towards the simplistic and whips by all too quickly, is still graced by some fantastic visual direction and strong, measured performances all round.
The setup is a barbed take on the comically broad strokes of classic eighties teen love stories; Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel, Twilight: Eclipse, Road Train) is a high school student whose life falls apart when a dreadful accident leaves his family bereaved and broken. Brent's only solace is his girlfriend, Holly, who he's planning to ask to the prom to show how much he loves her.
Unfortunately, he's got another admirer, Lola (Robin McLeavy), the shy girl at the back of the class everyone mocks. In a John Hughes flick, she'd be the prize, yet here Brent's polite rejection sees him kidnapped by Lola's psychotic father (John Brumpton) at her behest and forced to sit through her terribly warped, idealised version of what her perfect prom ought to be.
There is blood, basically, some truly disturbing nastiness (suffice it to say Lola is not kind to those who fail to live up to her expectations), nudity and a great deal of screaming. The comedy picks relatively obvious targets, and the violence always has an element of showmanship that's clearly got an eye out for those with one hand in their popcorn.
But The Loved Ones is so much more than a crowd-pleasing slasher. The emotional beats are fairly obvious, even didactic - if you let yourself slide into depression you risk losing everything you care about? Who knew? - and the pacing suffers from some over-zealous editing, but neither of these detract too much from the film's strengths.
Way out in front of those are two excellent performances from the leads. Xavier Samuel is perhaps getting off a little easy, given he barely has to speak throughout, yet at the same time he clearly knows how to sell internal conflict, much more so than the disposable cannon fodder in the average genre flick. To be blunt, it's difficult to believe the grimly determined survivor here and the simpering non-entity in Road Train are the same person.
But Robin McLeavy easily dominates the film. Once she's got her hands on Brent, if Samuel represses his terror and confusion - or later his rage - for most of the running time, McLeavy seems to be struggling to contain her emotions.
Lola's a fantastic, instantly memorable obsessive. Whether or not she understands what drives her needs, or how to fulfil those needs she's so clearly enthused by what she does, so dangerously happy for once, partly she leaves the viewer wishing this girl could get what she wanted without killing people.
Again, the script is simplistic, and Byrne does go straight for the audience's buttons. But even implying Lola's relationship with her father is something more than filial devotion has a kind of melancholy to it as well as the expected comic or gross-out angles.
Each story arc - Brent realising he doesn't want to die, Lola struggling to understand the rationale behind her actions, even Brent's best friend on his own prom date - is unexpectedly intimate, earthy, much more than the sterile soap opera clichés of most teen horror. Thus the intimacy gives the violence far more impact; yes, it's partly preaching to the choir but we care what happens to Brent. We dread how far Lola will go (given her willingness to keep ramping up the sadism). Some of it we can guess, true, but predictable or not Byrne's confident direction and the sense of genuine tension make The Loved Ones a tremendously compelling little thriller as well as a bone for gorehounds.
It has to be said it's over all too soon, and it's a little too obvious much of the film was left on the cutting room floor - the two main plot threads (Brent's hell and his best friend's date) don't come together anything like as neatly as they should. Perhaps Byrne or his producers wanted to play it safe by paring the narrative down to the bone, rather than risk alienating the stereotypical demographic after cheap thrills and splatter? Yet The Loved Ones is a smart, emotive, bleakly funny story about people trying to grow up and move on as well as a shocking, visceral piece of horror, and it's a shame it couldn't have been treated a little more like the one than the other.
Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD (available to buy from October 4th) gives The Loved Ones a solid presentation, a little slight on extras but showing the film off to striking effect. The film is broken up into twelve character stops, and menus are simple but stylish and easy to navigate. The picture is a little soft, with some grain, but solid, with decent definition and some beautiful colour balance that lets the seventies-esque palette stand out.
The basic 2.0 stereo track is clear and crisp, coping with the frequent screaming, raised voices and sounds of violence more than adequately. (Dolby 5.1 is also available.) Removable subtitles are easy to read, with no visible mistakes.
There are only a few extras, mostly interview snippets, with the director and his leads responding to fairly perfunctory intertitles. None of the questions are particularly searching, but all the interviewees are refreshingly unpretentious, Samuel and McLeavy cheerfully admitting they'd barely watched any horror before signing up to the film (yet each now in love with the possibilities of the genre) and all concerned displaying a fairly solid grasp of its strengths and limitations. Ninety seconds of fairly pointless B-roll footage is also included.
It's frustrating thinking of many people will probably pass up The Loved Ones as pure fanservice, or dismiss it as too much excess. Frustrating in part because it is visibly intent on satisfying an audience after mayhem first and foremost, it suffers for it somewhat and would probably end up giving a lot of these people the impression they were right all along.
also much more than disposable genre entertainment; it has gore and
scares in abundance, but also artistry, pathos and empathy. 'If you
don't care, you don't scare', Byrne says at one point. The Loved Ones
makes you care, and it's arguably that above all else which means Optimum Home
Entertainment's UK DVD comes so strongly recommended.
(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment for facilitating this DVD review.)