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We Failed This Film: Sean Byrne’s ‘The Loved Ones’

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We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the twelfth entry, we’re going to the most disturbing prom ever with Sean Byrne’s underseen horror gem The Loved Ones.

How We Failed It

Sometimes underrated films come in packs. There was a period within the last 10 years when some of the best modern horror films were being made, yet they didn’t receive a theatrical release. Films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil — some of the most refreshing, creative and inventively made horror films of the 21st century — were all largely buried from theatrical release for years before finally seeing a home release and gaining cult status. Unless you caught them at a festival, most could only be watched in secret (pirating). Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne’s 2009 directorial debut The Loved Ones is one of these films. Even at its most well known, the movie was always one of modern horror’s best-kept secrets.

Byrne’s film takes place largely over a 24-hour period on the day of the year-end school dance. Handsome but emotionally damaged Brent (Xavier Samuel) is asked to the event by shy outcast Lola (Robin McLeavy), but the boy politely declines as he is going with his beautiful girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine). This is the wrong answer. Later, Brent is kidnapped by Lola’s father (John Brumpton) and forced to endure a night full of demented behavior and physical torture, a prisoner of Lola’s own twisted prom night.

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I could go into the low domestic box office returns for this film, but there’s really not much to cover. The Loved Ones didn’t even really have a theatrical release in America, only nominally hitting theaters in Australia in 2010. It racked up $250,000 in its homeland, a lacking return against its $4 million budget. Paramount picked up The Loved Ones for theatrical release stateside, but ended up just sitting on the film instead, giving it a limited release in 2012 (so limited that box office numbers for that run are nowhere to be found). Who knows why the film received this fate, but it goes to show that a film isn’t going to find an audience if people aren’t given the opportunity to see it. Four million dollars is a perfectly low budget to make back, and if the rise of Blumhouse has proven anything, it’s that there is a lot of money to be made from low-budget genre fare.

For those lucky enough to catch The Loved Ones in its festival run, there was plenty of critical praise. Todd Brown opened up his review with “Though a touch prone to melodrama and inclined to overindulge its teen-angst metaphor, Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones is, nonetheless, one of the more striking examples of raw talent to emerge on the horror scene in a good long while. Byrne is a master of manipulating tension, a director with a very keen eye and a gift for pushing art direction right to the edge of Lynchian madness while still keeping things rooted in the real, recognizable world. And he has also given birth to one of the most potent serial killer duos to grace the screen ever.”

On the tiny U.S. release, Calum Marsh wrote that “You could call it ‘torture porn,’ as many critics have since it was released in its native Australia two years ago, but then this isn’t exactly Hostel either; its tone is too light, its manner too cavalier, to be bogged down by the kind of portentous posturing that made Eli Roth’s film reek of self-importance. Byrne, a first-time director, has a lot of fun with what is essentially rote slasher material, endowing it with the kind of blackly comic wit and levity that virtually guarantee its entry into the contemporary midnight-movie canon.”

The release of the film was clearly fumbled, as Paramount had a terrific film on their hands and could have seen an unlikely hit in the vein of what The Babadook or It Follows saw these past two years. VOD wasn’t as pronounced even five years ago as it is now, and The Loved Ones suffered for lacking that independent exposure. One of the great things about film, though, is that time only stands to heal the wounds of great movies. The Loved Ones is a gem of modern horror and many now recognize the film’s worth.

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Why It’s Great

Before getting into the more grisly and nasty components of the film, The Loved Ones spends a good chunk of time developing a sense of emotion for its characters. Brent is taking a drive with his father, and they both poke fun at each other’s taste in music that is harshly separated by generation. Their bonding moment is interrupted by a man (with carvings all over his body) who pops up in the middle of the road. Brent swerves the car away to avoid hitting the stranger and crashes the vehicle into a tree. It’s revealed later that Brent’s father died in the accident, and this puts an emotional strain and detachment on the relationship between Brent and his mother. He has descended into an emotional spiral, prone to depression and self-harm that only his girlfriend Holly can seem to pull him out of. After setting up the emotional grounds for Brent, writer/director Byrne spends the rest of the film putting him through the gauntlet.

The whole cast does well, elevating stereotypes to something unique. Xavier Samuel carries the emotional baggage and spends much of the first act flirting with death. Brent has multiple self-inflicted scratches on his chest and nearly falls off a cliff after holding on with just one hand. By the end, though, all he wants to do is live, and Samuel sells the pain and torture of the night at Lola’s with a frightening authenticity.

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John Brumpton plays Lola’s father and boasts an unsettling demeanor from the get go. With just his stare, a mix between detachment and arousal, he sends chills. Lola and “Daddy” have an uncomfortable relationship, a few steps away from becoming sexual. Lola’s father watches her undress, and the daughter performs this act like there’s nothing unusual going on. Jessica McNamee plays the hardcore Mia and sells her disengagement well, as The Loved Ones has more surprises to offer beyond the narrative of Brent.

Female performances in horror films are some of the most underappreciated in the industry. Just last year, two of the best female performances came in horror films — Essie Davis in The Babadook and Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes, and Robin McLeavy joins those ranks with The Loved Ones. Lola is absolutely psychotic and deranged, her mere presence giving the viewer anxiety due to her unpredictability. The film wouldn’t succeed without McLeavy’s commitment to the fractured and demented psyche of Lola, as not many are capable of selling a line such as “Is this chicken finger-licking good?” For what it’s worth, that scene also features explicit physical acts conducted via chicken wing that rivals Killer Joe.

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The Loves Ones would border on “brutally unbearable” if it didn’t have such a well-felt sense of humor. Filled with numerous light-heart moments, there’s also a comedic subplot in which Brent’s perennially un-cool and buffoonish friend asks the tough hardcore girl Mia to the dance. One can’t help but laugh at his constant failure to be suave along with Mia’s disengagement. Incidentally, there’s a comedic element to the film that is absolutely pitch-black. There’s something slightly comical in the brutality taking place within Lola’s house as disco lights perpetually spin around the room. Lola talks shit on her previous captives in the same manner you talk in spite about an ex.

Even at a brisk 83 minutes, The Loved Ones offers an endurance test in just how much torture one can handle. The practical effects are top notch and lend much credence to the shock, but what sets the film apart from mere torture porn is the impressive and skilled presentation. Drills, syringes and knives all play their part, and just when you think you’ve seen the peak of the film’s depravity and violence, it finds a way to top itself in the most surprising and creative of ways. The less you know going into The Loved Ones, the more it will truly enthrall and surprise you.

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The Loved Ones is a work of narrative minimalism. From the moment Brent is captured, a spiral mechanism of storytelling springs forward with each passing minute, and the film becomes more demented, disturbing and terrifying. Sean Byrne and cinematographer Simon Chapman know how to mine the tension out of each minute and interaction, as they subtly amplify the claustrophobia and rising tension of the house in framing that grows tighter as the situation worsens. They will typically stage Lola and her father in domineering compositions, with Brent in more submissive frames in comparison. There’s a clear line between hunter and prey that Byrne subtly reinforces with his camera. When Brent climbs up a tree in an effort to escape, Lola and her father treat him like part of the Australian wildlife, shining a flashlight on him. Byrne stages the encounter like Brent is an animal being hunted and heightens certain moments with a sense of surreality. When Lola gets “crowned” prom queen, applause rings out and fairy tale music plays. One scene finds Lola and her father chanting at Brent, their echoing voices only enhancing the doom.

The first time I saw The Loved Ones, I described the film as “refreshingly disturbing,” and it has the same effect years later. With Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek films, Australia now has three of the most iconic horror films of the 21st century, and Sean Byrne’s debut shows that he is capable of making a real impact on the horror genre, creating one of the most memorable modern horror villains with Lola Stone.

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Going Forward

The Loved Ones at least has a home release, even if it’s completely generic and devoid of a single special feature. Some type of specialty release would do the film a lot of good, and Scream Factory seems like the best fit with its focus on genre films. After six long years, Sean Byrne finally has a follow-up, The Devil’s Candy, which premiered at Fantastic Fest earlier this year to rave reviews and will hopefully drive interest back to Byrne’s debut.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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