Always look out for the quiet ones, as Mark Lee discovers in Sean Byrne’s Aussie shocker, The Loved Ones.
Teen horror flicks can provide us with glorious levels of gory, vacuous fun; what better way for you to spend an evening than to laugh your way through the methodical murders of a giggling group of shallow teens, warmly wrapped in your comfort blanket of righteousness as the shadowy killer ‘punishes’ them for their reprehensible promiscuity and assorted offences against all that is morally wholesome?
On the face of it, Sean Byrne’s horror expedition, The Loved Ones, is crafted from the tried and tested teen horror blueprint which has proven so successful for so long. Yet the enormous level of respect he pays to his small collection of young characters, coupled with the gloomy thematic backdrop of grief and loss, results in a picture that is undeniably brutal and gruesome, whilst also affecting and engaging. Byrne’s steady directorial hand means that we care for these characters at a very early stage, and as such their descent into hell proves agonisingly tense and profoundly disturbing.
The ominous black cloud of our decidedly sinister story begins to loom as the grief-stricken Brent – metalhead, self-harmer, and an ‘emotional retard’ who needs to flirt with death to experience emotions with any depth – is asked to the End of School Dance by the initially shy and awkward Lola Stone. Following his rejection of her offer, Brent falls victim to a sustained ordeal of mental and physical torture that reignites his long buried survival instinct.
The manner of Brent’s rejection of the obsessive Lola is the first demonstration of the movie’s departure from the stubborn template of teen horror; far from the cruel and exaggerated rejection commonly presented as justification for brutal revenge, Brent, dealing with his own feelings of pain and rejection surrounding his father’s death, is not without kindness as he tells Lola that he already has a partner for the dance. And the subsequent scene of playfulness featuring Brent’s girlfriend Holly, using her feminine charms in an effort to extract from a tight-lipped Brent exactly who has asked him to the dance, is captured with sensitivity and depth; this is no fleeting teen romance, and no supposed vindication for the impending horror.
As the chronicle of brutality progresses, and as we’re introduced to hammers, lobotomies, drills, and bleach, the terror is, of course, deliriously exaggerated. Amongst the colourful violence, the central themes and metaphors are well represented; the developing teenagers are desperate to find a firm foothold and identity in the world, yet searching for a strong lead from the adults proves futile. Here we have fathers who are dealing with their own grief – and failure, fathers who are gone, fathers who are hopelessly inadequate, servile, and incestuously sycophantic, and mothers who can no longer fulfil their parental duties. It seems no coincidence that Brent’s depressed mother – little more than a shell after the loss of her husband – is barely more effective than the lobotomised mother of the sinister Lola Stone. And should we be shocked by the confused sexual overtones which Lola delights in playing with whilst Brent is at her behest? No; we simply grimace in disgust at the barely concealed salivation of her possessive father, and our questions no longer require answers.
The Loved Ones proves a bleak, taut, and deeply disturbing watch, but with impressive performances across the board (most notably Robin McLeavy, who portrays the dinky yet obscenely cruel Lola brilliantly), some accomplished and imaginative camera work (look out for the movement of the camera as Brent climbs the rock face with his bare hands), convincing special effects, and a sensitivity towards the characters which overshadows so many of its rivals, the sick, depraved, and tormented world of Lola Stone is one which you should brace yourself to experience.
The Loved Ones is region B encoded, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and presented in 1080p. The resultant image quality on this release is excellent; the picture is presented with a vibrant colour spectrum and an impressive level of detail, yet the often grimy feel of the movie is retained to ensure it maintains credibility for the demands of the genre. This grimy feel is represented by a sometimes slightly washed out texture; though when Lola slips on her pink dress and vivid make-up to unleash her vicious torment, the strength of colour is unquestionable. Movements are smooth and seamless, and the wide shots of the stunning Australian scenery are captured with glorious levels of detail.
In terms of technical information, the file size of the main feature itself is approximately 21.5Gb, with the total size of the data on the disk with extras being approximately 22.5Gb. The encoding here is MPEG4-AVC, with a frame rate of 24.
There are English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing.
The audio options here will serve viewers well, with the choice to listen in either 5.1 DTS-MA, or stereo via Dolby Digital 2.0 LPCM. The 2.0 LPCM soundtrack is rich, with suitable depth underpinning an impressive level of clarity. Voices are distinct and clear, and there is no evidence of distortion whatsoever. The disturbing, murky musical score is reproduced well, and the sickening sounds of screams, slashes, and a drill pushing into bone are presented with terrifying realism.
The selection of extras on this Blu-ray release is, unfortunately, disappointing. There is a clutch of interviews with the Director, Sean Byrne, and selected cast members. These average around the two minute mark per interview, yet the chosen format is decidedly irritating. For each interview, a topic will appear on the screen for a few seconds, followed by the interviewee’s response. This spoils the continuity of the interviews, and the net result is one of feeling undersold.
With that gripe aside, the responses here do add some interesting auxiliary information to the main feature, and the most enjoyable slot is that of Robin McLeavy, who plays Lola. It’s reassuring to discover that she’s actually rather delicate and charming, and she mentions how her role in the movie has led to a previously undiscovered interest in horror movies. It’s also worth noting that all interviewees are pleasant, unpretentious, and thoroughly likeable types whom I hope to see a lot more of in the future.
There is also a B-roll Footage segment, which runs at a mere 1 minute, 26 seconds. It does provide a glimpse into some of the tricks used to perform the gruesome magic of the film, but once again, feels woefully undercooked.
Sean Byrne ensures Australia stays on the horror map with a gritty, stylish, and colourful shocker, featuring impressive performances, accomplished camera work, and a thick slab of nausea-inducing brutality. Additionally, The Loved Ones has something to say about its characters, and the uncertainty of the world within which they struggle to carve out an identity. With a polished transfer and engaging sound quality on this Optimum Home Entertainment release, it’s only really the low volume of extras which lets the side down. Thanks to the overall quality of this picture, that is not enough to prevent The Loved Ones being a highly recommended release.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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