The last Australian horror movie I saw was 2005’s dismal Wolf Creek. The film featured some backpackers who become stranded, then captured by a crazy person who imprisons and tortures them mercilessly. That’s it. There was no real plot besides what was necessary to get them into the torture chamber — and you could forget about any character development. All Wolf Creek provided was gratuitous torture-induced gore, so emotionally vacant, it was completely unsatisfying. I absolutely hated that movie.
So, despite having heard good things about Sean Byrne’s narrative feature debut, The Loved Ones, I couldn’t feel too optimistic. I realized that I was unfairly associating his film with Wolf Creek, but that was my point of reference for modern Australian horror. Still, I attempted to clear my mind of that negativity and proceeded to give the film a chance.
I’m so glad I did.
The Loved Ones opens with Brent (Xavier Samuel) driving his father down a rural road. The two are happily conversing, when, suddenly, a bloody figure appears in the middle of the road. Swerving to avoid the person, Brent slams the car into a tree, killing his father.
Sometime later, Brent has sunk into a deep depression. Failing to cope with the guilt associated with the accident, Brent sinks into an existence fueled by drugs and self-mutilation. The only bright spot in his life is his beautiful and outstandingly supportive girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thaine). So, when asked to prom by shy outcast Lola (Robin McLeavy), Brent politely declines, explaining that he is spoken for.
This first act accomplishes what Wolf Creek never even attempted: it introduces sympathetic characters and develops their histories and personalities. Brent is a depressed kid, but he is far from one-dimensional. He shows glimmers of happiness when with Holly, making him easier to connect with, which becomes increasingly important in the second act.
As it turns out, rejecting Lola’s advance was the worst thing Brent could have possibly done. While taking his dog for a walk, he is attacked and knocked unconscious. He awakens tied to a chair, wearing a tuxedo, inside Lola’s house — which has been decorated to look like a school dance. Lola is in a prom dress and ready to start their “date.” She and her father then proceed to beat and torture Brent.
Once Brent is captured, it would have been easy for this movie to devolve into a typical torture-porn flick. Instead, Byrne focuses not on the torturous deeds inflicted on Brent, but his reactions to them — his fear taking precedent over his physical pain. Further, Lola and her father are not merely set-pieces used only to progress the plot and perform the torture; Byrne studies their psychology, offering a glimpse into the minds of complete sociopaths. What makes The Loved Ones scary isn’t the violence on screen; it’s the insanity present inside the antagonists’ heads.
Overall, The Loved Ones is partly gruesome, partly campy, but a complete blast. Byrne’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously; he’s not afraid to have fun with his movie, making any missteps largely forgivable. His seamless blending of humor and horror makes The Loved Ones an incredibly enjoyable experience, start to finish.
The San Francisco International Film Festival takes place this year from April 22 to May 6.
The Loved Ones screens again this Sunday, May 2 at 10:30pm & Thursday, May 6 at 3:00pm. Please visit the official SFIFF website for more information on specific screenings.