A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 30, 2010.
Perhaps the most widely influential Australian filmmakers of our day are Leigh Whannell and James Wan – the creators of the Saw franchise, which helped launch the vogue for the horror sub-genre regrettably known as “torture porn”. This first feature from local writer-director Sean Byrne follows the trail blazed by these pioneers. In this case, the “porn” label seems semi-appropriate; not that The Loved Ones is especially explicit, but there's a queasy sexual undercurrent to much of the mayhem.
So far, so familiar: horror movies of all stripes frequently focus on young women in a bare minimum of clothing, who squirm in captivity while facing the prospect of violent death or worse. But Byrne puts a personal stamp on proceedings by reversing the usual gender roles: the chief victim, Brent (Xavier Samuel), is a mopey adolescent boy who blames himself for the death of his father in an highway accident. When his supportive, sexually enthusiastic girlfriend (Victoria Thaine) tries to bring him out of his funk, he responds like a shrinking violet (or, in her words, an “emotional retard”) in a scene that prefigures much to come.
Brent's biggest mistake is the brush-off he gives to shy, mousy Lola (Robin McLeavy) when she asks him to the end-of-year school dance. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned, particularly when she's a teenage girl. Lola turns out to be a full-fledged psycho, who kidnaps Brent on the evening of the dance with the aid of her equally crazed father (a wooden-faced, eye-rolling John Brumpton, in a role straight out of The League of Gentlemen). Pretty in pink, she's bent on staging her very own prom night in the family living room, complete with party hats, a slowly rotating mirrorball, and a trussed-up Brent as the guest of honour.
McLeavy embraces the theatrical excesses of the role, and the escalating unpleasantnesses soon leave any sort of reality far behind. Still, Lola remains a memorable monster – a case of cloying innocence gone horribly wrong. Initially she treats Brent as a cross between a handsome prince and a new favorite toy, but from the moment she delivers the ready-made cult catchphrase “Get the hammer, Daddy,” it's clear this fairy tale is unlikely to have a happy ending.
Horror-comedy is a difficult genre, not mastered here: the tortures are neither funny nor scary, merely grotesque. Byrne is willing to take the audience to some uncomfortable and not too familiar places, blending a strong element of masochistic fantasy with parody of the self-pitying side of “girl culture” (Kasey Chambers' maudlin hit “Not Pretty Enough” aptly serves as Lola's anthem). But the film remains stranded between psychological intensity and cheerfully depthless splatter, as if it yearned to be a gender-flipped Psycho (1960), while winding up as something closer to a live-action Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.
Undoubtedly Byrne has a knack for bold, memorable concepts and images (Lola's last stand, in wide shot, is worth the wait). Even his willingness to let his obsessions get out of control is a mark of promise if hardly a plus in itself. What he doesn't quite have is enough storyline to sustain a full-length feature, forcing him to pad out the running time with a redundant subplot involving Brent's dorky best friend (Richard Wilson) and his surly prom date (Jessica McNamee). While this is another story about a hapless guy and an alarmingly wilful girl, it's anyone's guess what we're meant to make of the parallel.