Loved Ones, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe enjoys this probing study of the trepanning and branding processes...
Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) asked Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) to the prom, but Brent said no and now he's screwed. What happens when Lola doesn't get what she wants? She enlists Daddy's (John Brumpton) help to throw a prom of her own where she is queen and Brent is king, whether he likes it or not. The Loved Ones is what happens when puppy love goes horribly, violently wrong. Brent should have said yes. (From Paramount’s official synopsis)
Aside from the female-led, police procedural type thrillers that followed Silence of the Lambs, ‘strong’ women in horror movies tend to fall into two categories. The first category is the ‘final girl’ or the would-be victim that effectively fights back and usually kills the villain, in the tradition of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and every Friday the 13th movie. In the right hands, this trope can be subversive, but is usually cinematic shorthand that really doesn’t mean anything to anyone. The second category is that of the horror villainess. Traditionally, the villainess was a vixen or hag character, neither of which particularly transcend the sexist stereotypes that have followed the genre for centuries (obvious exceptions apply). The two types collided in ‘70s horror films, like The Exorcist and Carrie, where the female victim became the villainess. Carrie White, specifically, was emotionally beaten into the role of murderer as a high school outsider and Brian DePalma’s film was popular enough to turn her plight into another horror cliché. There are dozens of mindful horror films that feature distraught feminine outsiders driven to acts of violence and, like Carrie, many of them are built around the real-life horrors of post-adolescent high school life.
First-time feature-length writer/director Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones floated under my radar until it finally arrived in my mailbox for this review. I see now that it was largely very well received by critics, even those without a particular affection for the genre. It appears that most mainstream critics were particularly predisposed to comparing The Loved Ones to the so-called ‘torture porn’ films that effectively died off with the previous decade. There is an awful lot of film devoted directly to torture and there are no punches pulled in terms of onscreen gore, but really, The Loved Ones is another child of the post- Carrie movie world. Byrne reframes the emotionally distraught adolescent girl tropes for modern eyes, though, at its base, his film is yet another take on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre formula. Unfortunately, he’s not the first to take this route with the concepts, though he may be the first to confine so much of the story to a single location. This is specifically the film’s greatest strength and a major source of its most obvious problems.
Byrne is clearly coming to The Loved Ones from a short film heritage. His predisposition for location confinements does set a claustrophobic and relentless tone that plays very well against the film’s sense of dark comedy. Shorn to something under an hour, this is a nearly perfectly-pitched and tightly knit shocker, which I assume follows the lead set by director’s other movies. Instead of leaving his film stripped and lean, Byrne attempts to fill out a feature-length movie with unnecessary cut-aways and subplots. The most obvious unneeded element is a subplot involving Brent’s friend, Jamie (Richard Wilson), and his awkward date with the school’s resident dark and sexy chick, Mia (Jessica McNamee). Any time the film cuts away from Brent’s torture it’s a bit of an issue, but Jamie’s story is particularly unneeded. This subplot isn’t dense enough to stand alone, has very little in the way of build-up or denouement, and, most superfluously, never reconnects to the main narrative save a brief early scene where Jamie asks Mia out in Brent’s presence. I kept waiting for Jamie and Mia to happen upon the Stone’s homestead, but there’s literally zero narrative reason for either character to appear. Funnily enough, Byrne has an excuse for 20 more minutes of screen time built into his story. Unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it feels like we’re supposed to really know something about the characters personally, specifically the Stones before events spiral into disturbing chaos. Pertinent information is unraveled as needed, filling out some of the audience’s questions, but still, the classic potboil build-up is missing. We’re tossed into the deep end of the horror for the most part, which isn’t a problem for a short, but feels rhythmically wrong here, especially following the obviously extraneous bits that pull away from the main story.
Byrne’s direction makes all the difference his screenplay doesn’t. There’s nothing about the film that marks him as an obvious first time feature filmmaker. He gets a little showy with the slow motion, but mostly creates an effectively bleak and baroque horror environment that is, at times, genuinely beautiful. I’m guessing this crisp and classy imagery helped the less horrorphile critics accepted the film, along with its strong, natural sense of character. You don’t necessarily like everyone on-screen, but they’re easy to understand and recognizable as character types without becoming total clichés. Byrne also isn’t preoccupied with paying direct homage to horror films past, despite his obvious Texas Chainsaw inspiration and a handful of more direct references to Tobe Hooper’s film. Structural issues aside, The Loved Ones is the kind of movie I wish over-loved, reference-obsessed Ty West would make. The Loved Ones reminds me a lot of Lucky McKee’s 2011 Jack Ketchum adaptation, The Woman. The two films are actually better companion pieces than The Woman’s official thematic precursor, The Offspring and McKee and Byrne’s contrasting stylistic approaches compliment each other quite well. Related, McKee and The Woman co-star Angela Bettis are responsible for arguably the best female-centric horror film of the last decade, May, which also works quite well as an extension of the post-adolescent outsider horror film.
It’s hard to blame Paramount for not putting such a niche release on DVD only, but Byrne shot the film using RED digital HD cameras and would likely look fantastic on the less compressed Blu-ray format. The transfer’s compression effects are largely found along its edges, including haloes and some really unfortunate jaggies. These are found most commonly in wide shots where some of the jaggies bleed into clumpy moiré effects. Details are obviously hampered by standard definition encoding, but are generally pretty impressive, especially close-up facial and clothing textures. Problems arise during the already messy wide shots where the fine textures of the Australlian countryside are mashed up into shapes, rather than details. The digital HD colours are certainly rich and vibrant, even if there are some minor blocking and bleeding effects throughout. Black levels are plenty pure and sharp, but the darker sequences suffer sizably more digital noise without the benefit of HD video’s abilities with sharp, pin-light details.
The Loved Ones is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounds just fine despite obvious compression issues. The mix is pretty minimalist for the most part, but has quite a bit of bite when we’re meant to be nervous or frightened. The usual stuff, like moving cars and basic outdoor ambience, meets the most basic expectations for directional movement and stereo/surround enhancement. The track springs a bit more to life when violence is concerned. The beating, slashing, hammering, and drilling of flesh is all quite loud and vigorous. There’s also an ongoing animalistic scream motif with the Stone’s victims, who have had their voice boxes ravaged by a straight injection of bleach. Rock music plays a heavy role in the mix (no pun intended), especially in terms of dynamic contrasts, as different genres tend to define different characters. The music is appropriately poppy, well spread over the stereo channels with just enough rear channel support to broaden the soundscape, and features some fantastically punchy bass (or throbby, depending on musical type).
The extras are brief, including interviews with actress Robin McLeavy (7:00), actor Xavier Samuel (7:50) and make-up supervisor Justin Dix (8:30), all featuring pieces of behind the scenes footage, and trailers for other Paramount releases.
Aussie horror appeared to be on the precipice of exploding, following the releases of James Wong’s Saw, the Spierig Brothers’ Undead and Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, but besides the Spierig’s mostly American Daybreakers and killer animal movies, like McLean’s Rogue, Andrew Traucki’s Blackwater and The Reef (which barely got stateside releases) the fire cooled pretty quickly (I’ve heard mixed-to-good things about Jon Hewitt’s Acolytes). The Loved Ones likely hasn’t been lumped with the bulk of Aussie horror because outside of the accents and wrong-sided steering wheels, it doesn’t really feel particularly Australian. This particular story could be taking place in Middle America. It’s too bad too, because I assume some kind of ‘The Latest Horror Standout Straight From Australia’ box art tag could boost the film’s viewership. The Loved Ones has its issues – major ones --– but it’s well made, well acted, and will surely please the hungry horror community. This practically bare-bones DVD release doesn’t thrill in A/V terms, but generally gets the job done.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 11th September 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Cast and Crew Interview, Trailers, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sean Byrne
Cast: Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, Victoria Thaine, Jessica McNamee, Richard Wilson
Genre: Comedy and Horror
Length: 84 minutes
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