The Loved Ones (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 29, 2010  | 
Optimum Releasing (UK) | Region 2, PAL | 2.40:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 84 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Sean Byrne
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, Victoria Thaine, Jessica McNamee, Richard Wilson, John Brumpton
Screenplay: Sean Byrne
Country: Australia
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It's been a good couple of years in the peaks-and-troughs world of Australian genre films, and The Loved Ones most definitely represents one of the highest points reached so far. In the special features on this disc, one of the actors refers to the film as a roller-coaster mixed with the ghost train at the local fair – at its breathless 75 minutes running time (excluding credits, which bring it to 84) where it hurls all kinds of mayhem, nastiness and just simply the flat-out bizarre at you in a truly heroic effort to scare you and entertain you at the same time – he's not wrong. But you know the best part about that? It works. And it works brilliantly.

Brent (Xavier Samuel) is a troubled soul. Six months ago, he and his jovial, larrikin father were out driving on a deserted road; a mutilated young man covered in blood is shuffling down the road in their general direction, seemingly unaware of the car's presence, moving away from a house in the middle of nowhere. Brent panics and swerves, piloting the family car into a tree, killing his father on impact. Guilt-ridden, not only at that, but also at the effect this has had on his mother, he retreats into a world of bad metal, weed and the one positive thing left to him, sweet girl-next-door girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine, in a very sympathetic performance – a credible, real person rather than a shrieking caricature) – and yet, it's not enough. Brent self-mutilates with a razor blade he wears around his neck, really damaging himself (this adds credibility to a few of his reactions, or lack of them, at later points of the film, when things begin to go horribly wrong), and attempting potentially lethal rock-climbing exploits on an almost sheer cliff face.

These aren't the normal things a final year high school student goes through – but the End Of Year Dance is. Brent's not really interested in it – he just wants to hang with Holly and pull cones – but his likeable klutzy mate Jamie (Richard Wilson) is. Jamie's got a trouser tent for Mia (Jessica McNamee), the school's sexy, sultry and sulky goth chick. But she's going to the end of year dance with Jamie, which makes him a happy camper. Now, there's a lot more to this particular plot thread of Jamie and Mia than may at first meet the eye. Persevere with it – I thought it was filler at first, but I was very wrong.

Not so happy is Lola (Robin McLeavy in a powerhouse performance that absolutely brings the house down), the quiet, awkward girl who doesn't really fit in at school, who asks Brent to the dance and is turned down, as he's going with Holly. She doesn't like that. No siree, Bob, she doesn't like that at all. Holly, incidentally, has just got her license – Brent and his mother's relationships about cars and driving have changed significantly in the last six months – and of course, what do teenagers do in the back seats of cars? They make out of course. You'd think that when Holly takes off Brent's shirt and sees his razor and some quite nasty evidence of what he's been doing to himself with it, it'd be a bit of a passion killer, right? Wrong. She's obviously disturbed by it, but she still gives him a blow job – while so distracted, these two lovebirds fail to notice Lola watching them through the window, and the look on her face shows her to be distinctly unimpressed.

After a confrontation with his anxious and now over-protective mother, Brent goes on the aforementioned rock-climbing trip, fully exercising his apparent death-wish – but the desire for self-preservation is the strongest one we have, and this is something Brent definitely taps into very soon… As a matter of fact, as soon as he wakes up from the chloroform that's just been used to kidnap him. Just prior to this, we've seen Lola at home pasting cut out pictures in a scrapbook. Now that's normal enough behaviour for a socially awkward teenage girl, you might think – but why a yearbook photo of Brent? And what's with the red dot she's drawn in the middle of his forehead? Awkward family moment #1: Lola's Daddy (played with bug-eyed intensity by Brumpton; truly creepy) has bought her a new pink satin dress and some rather complicated-looking shoes for their very own End Of Year Dance – and guess who Lola's date is going to be, whether he likes it or not? Anyway, the awkward moment isn't the purchase of the dress – it's Daddy watching his Princess changing into it, and the look on his face while she does so. The dynamic of Lola's relationship with her father is uncomfortable viewing throughout The Loved Ones, but also one of the film's strengths. By the way – you will never hear that awful Kasey Chambers song, "Am I Not Pretty Enough?" the same way ever again after watching this film.

It's probably at this point I should mention the sound design of the film, which is first rate. The interplay between diegetic sound (and even the selection of the soundtrack is worth noting for some of the songs' relevance to the script: e.g. – the opening sequence unfolds to the strains of The Little River Band's "Lonesome Loser" – "Have you heard about the Lonesome Loser/Beaten by the Queen Of Hearts everytime/Have you heard about the Lonesome Loser/He's a loser but he still keeps on trying" – think about that when you're about 50 minutes into the film) and the creepy-as-all-hell non-diegetic score is nothing short of amazing, and emphasises the darkness and intensity of this extraordinary film.

Meanwhile, Brent's mother and Holly have realised that when Brent's not there to be picked up for the dance that something is wrong – moreso when Brent's dog drags itself to the front door, having been beaten almost to death (thankfully off-screen) with a hammer. They call the local copper, who just happens to be Mia's father, a man haunted by an experience in his past, who then begins to investigate Brent's disappearance. In this part of the story arc as the film develops, Holly really shines as a character. She seems much more like an actual person than the standard horror bimbette or the archetypal scream queen. Her loyalty to Brent gives her character strength rather than having an attack of the screaming mee-mees, and doesn't lead her into doing the usual dumb stuff young women seem to indulge in, in horror films. I recently read a few reviews for The Loved Ones which suggested that we don't care about the characters – I don't know what film these dunderheads were watching, but it wasn't the same one as me.

Brent wakes up in a tuxedo, tied to a kitchen chair in an ordinary suburban-looking kitchen, under a spinning mirror ball, facing Lola, Daddy and woman they refer to as "Bright Eyes" – a middle-aged woman whose vacant expression might be attributed to the fact that she has a hole drilled through her forehead. That's right, folks – trepanning is making a comeback! Now, this is the point where the tone of the film really shifts into what I can only describe as a kind of incongruous black humour, laced with moments of sheer horror, as Lola and her clearly insane Daddy begin to do terrible things to Brent. Really quite horrible, graphically violent things, some of which are uncomfortably and morbidly hilarious. But the real beauty of The Loved Ones is that it keeps upping its own ante by introducing something new or something just plain bizarre and yet still keeping in line with the film's internal logic, without blowing its wad too soon, or turning into some kind of ludicrous "everything and the kitchen sink" flick like House 2. Now, there's still a loooong ways to go with the plot, but if you think I'm going to ruin any of the surprises in store for you, you've got another thing coming. The less you know about the film before you see it, the better, basically.

I will say this before I go – and it's not anything to do with the events of the story. When you do watch it, maybe for the second time, as you should just let it wash over you with its goodness the first time around, think about the more serious themes and ideas that the film addresses – grief, healing, justice, vengeance, love, and above all, family relationships. This isn't Hostel you're watching here – there's much more on display than simply an effects reel of pretty gruesome violence. This film is layered, and more complex in its structure and characterisation than it may at first appear. Even down to the symbolism of the various cars that the different characters drive, and what that says about that character – the idea of cars as a metaphor for control, is another one – compare and contrast the characters who do and don't drive. The notion of love is explored across its full spectrum, both good and bad, though presentation of the different types of love on display between the different relationships shown and how they change – I'd like to go into more detail, but I'd be leading you by the nose through a film that deserves so much better treatment.

The Loved Ones is an exceptional debut feature film by anyone's standards. The direction is assured, the action riveting, the special effects and gore gags a visual delight for the experienced horror fan, the performances are rock solid, each and every one, although special props must be given yet again to Robin McLeavy, who presents Lola as a multi-faceted character rather than a one-note boogeyman. Plus, the whole thing is as taut as a drum – not a second, not a frame is wasted. Sean Byrne is a name to watch in genre film, folks – expect further greatness, as The Loved Ones promises much.
The Loved Ones looks fantastic - presented in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio, with a rich and vibrant colour pageant. The action fairly leaps off the screen at you.
Robert MacKenzie and James Harvey's sound design is simply excellent. The non-diegetic score by Ollie Olsen (a long-standing member of Melbourne's underground music scene) is similarly eerie and becomes increasingly moreso as the action heats up. Either presentation works well, immersing you even further into the film.
Extra Features
Disappointingly few. There are some very fragmentary interviews with director Sean Byrne, and cast members Xavier Samuels, Robin McLeavy, John Brumpton and Jessica MacNamee - the content is interesting, but the presentation is irritating, given to you in snippets of usually 30 seconds or less, rather than a sustained presentation. There's also some B-Roll footage, but that only lasts for a minute and a half. Not exactly what you'd call going all out.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
If you can't be entertained by The Loved Ones, you are a deeply and fundamentally flawed human being. Seriously, seek help. A delirious thrill ride through brutality, sadness, love and madness, peopled with characters you actually care about and engage with, The Loved Ones is Australian genre cinema at its very best.

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