Saturday, June 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Loved Ones

The Loved Ones *** ½
Directed By: Sean Byrne.
Written By: Sean Byrne
Starring: Xavier Samuel (Brent), Robin McLeavy (Lola), Victoria Thaine (Holly), Jessica McNamee (Mia), Richard Wilson (Sac), John Brumpton (Eric).

Note: I saw this movie two years ago at TIFF, where it won the People’s Choice Award for the Midnight Madness section. I assume that the version being released is the same that I saw at the Festival, but it is a very violent, disturbing film, so I do not know if any cuts were made.

I see so many horror films, that I often fear that I have become too jaded to the violence and scare tactics used even by the best of them. I can count the number of movies this decade on one hand that offered a sustained, horrific intensity that was truly frightening from beginning to end. Well, to that very exclusive list, you can add The Loved Ones, a brilliant new horror film from Australia that just won the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film opens innocently enough with a teenage kid Brent (Xavier Samuel) driving along with his dad in the seat next to him. Then a bloody, naked man comes out into the middle of the seemingly deserted road, and Brent has to swerve to avoid hitting him, wrapping the car around a tree and killing his dad in the process. The movie then picks up again eight months later, with Brent still raked with guilt. He medicates himself with pot, and punishes himself by cutting himself with a razor. His mother has become paranoid that he’ll die. The only bright spot in his life is his ever loyal girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine), who has stuck by him, no matter what. Today is the day of the big end of school dance, and the two are planning on going. But Lola (Robin McLeavy), a pretty wallflower has other ideas. When Brent rejects her advances, she has her “daddy” bring Brent to their secluded place, where she puts on a horrific little dance of her own. To say any more about the film would be to spoil the fun – and writer/director Sean Byrne has some truly demented, original tricks up his sleeve.

The Loved Ones puts most American horror films to shame. Most of the modern horror films are either flimsy, unscary, bloodless, toothless films aimed at scaring 13 year old girls, or else they devolve completely into torture porn – where the “thrill” of seeing someone tortured to death is supposed to make us forget just how poorly written, directed and acted these films are. While there are some truly shocking, truly disgusting scenes of torture in The Loved Ones, this is clearly not a torture porn film. What happens to Brent hurts – not just him, but also the audience forced to watch it.

The key to the movie – other than the perfect direction by Byrne, which brilliantly sets the scene, and then drags us into the darkness – is the performance by Robin McLeavy as Lola. In her first scene, she seems quiet, sad and a little pathetic. We, in short, feel sorry for her when she naively reaches out to Brent and tries to make a connection, only to be rejected. Brent is not mean about it – he does not mock or insult her – but he has a girlfriend he is in love with. Plus, there is something not quite right about Lola. When we meet her again, dancing around in her room to the insanely catchy, creepy song “Pretty Enough” by Charlene Choi while getting ready for her “big date”, her programs become more in focus. By the end, she has created the most memorable female horror villain since Sissy Spacek in Carrie. It is no stretch to say that her performance is every bit as good as Spacek’s was in that movie.

The Loved Ones is an original and truly frightening horror movie, and announces Byrne as one of the most original voices working in the genre today. I have no doubt that this movie will become a cult hit (most likely on DVD, until the inevitable American remake happens. Yes, the movie is in English, but those accents, and the lack of stars, will make this a harder sell Stateside). This is a horror film for fans of horror films that are disappointed with what the genre has recently has to offer.

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