by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review
© 2009 Screen Australia/Ambience Entertainment
For A Night With That Special Someone
Director Sean Byrne has come closer to producing a true spiritual heir to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre than just about anyone in the last thirty-five years. His prom-night horror story The Loved Ones spins a yarn of sick delusions and extreme human suffering, but somehow manages to find humor clinging to the underside of such dire subject matter.
In an unnamed suburb of Melbourne, it is time for the end of school dance, and everyone has a hot date. All except Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), a pink-clad misfit whose hopes and dreams seem to shatter when she finds out the handsome, Heath-Ledgerish Brent (Xavier Samuel) will be going with his main squeeze Holly.
We find out at the very beginning that Brent is a good kid, but grief and guilt over the tragic loss of his father have driven him into a permanent funk. He spends most of his time stoned, listening to black metal and mutilating his arms with a razor blade. However, he has retained sufficient charm to find a nice girlfriend and attract the attention of others, most notably Lola.
Meanwhile, Lola has a game plan in case she couldn’t find a date. She’s quite mad, you see. With the help of her doting Daddy (John Brumpton), she abducts Brent and stages her own “dance” at home. Brent awakens to a grotesque family dinner no doubt saluting the aforementioned Lone Star power tool murder incident film. Lola’s unrequited love, about which her own epiphany comes too late, fuels her all-night campaign of wounding, torturing, humiliating, and otherwise making Brent regret not only refusing her as a date, but also possibly ever having been born. Nonetheless, he is not about to go down quietly, and as the people in his life start to notice his absence on the night of the big dance, it becomes just possible that he may be found alive.
Horror films lacking any sense of humor are typically doomed before they begin. The smallest sliver of a bad joke can make all the difference in tone between a hair-raising thrill ride and an unbearable ordeal. At one point in Chain Saw‘s infamous dinner sequence, nonstop screaming terror breaks down into a savage collective giggling fit, as our poor heroine’s mind snaps for good. It is nearly impossible to suppress a hiccup of horrified laughter when watching this scene, and The Loved Ones breaks tension in similar ways whenever its brutality becomes almost too much to stand. This was the fatal mistake of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, which began promisingly but ran its course without the faintest wink or smile into a final act packed solid with degradation and torture. Had Byrne not perceived his opportunities to counter darkness with occasional doses of levity, The Loved Ones might have ended up much the same way. What too many people fail to realize is that the premise of almost any horror film, no matter how grave its tone, is inherently just a little bit ludicrous.
After his first taste of Lola’s sadistic madness, Brent tries to escape and ends up treed like a raccoon in the front yard. Something about the absurdity of his new plight, juxtaposed with the menace of the previous scene, is just plain hilarious. Robin McLeavy takes her performance to a new level at this key moment, giving full air to Lola’s battle between rage and squealing glee as she hurls rocks to knock him down.
To an outsider at least, there is a streak of fearless unpredictability in well-made Australian films. Something written into the cultural cinematic language will inevitably take straightforward scenarios in directions one cannot expect. This holds largely true across the board, whether the film in question is Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, The Last Wave or Muriel’s Wedding, and in this respect The Loved Ones does not disappoint.
Though boasting a sharp punchline or two, this movie is no soft affair, and has some genuine “hide your eyes” moments in store. The acting is excellent, the technical aspects solid, and the soundtrack absolutely stellar. In addition to the appropriate retro-prom-horror score by Ollie Olsen, you will find a mix of moody tunes by the likes of Kasey Chambers, The Little River Band, The Dirtbombs, Little Red, and Pete Molinari. It is a perfect jukebox of angst and woe, so that you may remember forever that there’s always somebody who had a worse prom night than you did.