Well, colour me utterly impressed by this gem of a genre movie. With shades of the high-school nastiness of Carrie or Heathers and a family to rival a certain chainsaw-loving Texan clan though without their straightforward grotesquery, The Loved Ones makes its nastiness really count: this is because it is intelligent enough to place believable, likeable characters at its core and everything else just slots into place.
I feel fortunate that I'm marginally too old to have been affected by the arrival of the School Dance, a.k.a The Prom, on British shores from across the pond. Sure, there were school discos, but if any of my friends and I went anywhere near them it was to share a flagon of cider around the back of the hall simply to express disdain at the whole thing. These days it's a different affair, with many schools putting on pretty lavish events and many pupils placing a great deal of importance on it. If movies are to be believed then no good can come of this sort of thing whatsoever, and it seems to be the same in Australia.
The film opens with a father (John Brumpton) and son Brent (a young man I'm sure is already heartily sick of being compared to a young Michael Hutchence, Xavier Samuel) good-naturedly chatting as they make their way by car through some deserted roads on the outskirts of town. All of a sudden - bam - there's a boy covered by blood in the middle of the road. Dad swerves to avoid a collision, but they crash into a nearby tree.
The action jumps forward six months, and Brent is about to leave school for good : cue a school dance in the offing. When a shy fellow student named Lola (Robin McLeavy) asks him out to this dance, he politely declines as he's already going with his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) - with whom things get a little hot and heavy when they head to his car. But there's more to Brent than meets the eye: he's troubled - a self-harmer; when Holly alludes to his dad he doesn't want to talk about it; his mother seems distant and paranoid. Life may look alright on the surface, but Brent can't see the value to it: instead of getting ready for the dance, he heads to a remote spot and half-seems like he could just end it all by allowing himself to drop from the cliff edge.
You should be careful what you wish for though, as there are strange folk in this part of town, and - as the dance starts without him and in another of the film's great shock sequences - Brent is overpowered and kidnapped by a man who bundles him into a car. He's missed by his mother and his girlfriend almost immediately, but due to his wayward recent behaviour no one's willing to go looking for him just yet. Meanwhile Brent arrives at his destination, and finds out who his captor is…
This film does what it does very, very well indeed: the opening scene - of a relaxed familial conversation, interrupted by a shock, and then left behind by six months - really piqued my curiosity, not least because the easy, believable conversation between the first characters we meet gave me a sense of concern for them. When this doesn't occur in films because the writing or acting just aren't strong enough then however compelling the plot line, the film will never be as effective as it could be. Here, the sterling acting work done by Xavier Samuel is matched by the initially ambiguous attitude you have towards the villains of the piece, though this is gradually replaced by repulsion at their increasingly warped behaviour and you can't just settle straight into a mode of viewing. The film repeats the ability to shock which it demonstrates in its opening scenes throughout. The escalatingly-nasty footage of what happens to Brent is interrupted with 'breathers', shots of what is going on away from his ordeal, and then - back to Brent again (with some neat plot tie-ins between the world outside and Brent's ordeal). You're never able to forget what is going on in real time, and I was very much caught up by the on-screen events. By the time the film was an hour in, this ever-tightening pace and plot developments meant I was wondering just what in the hell the film was going to throw at me next. This is definitely a good thing.
The film does use some standard horror fare - someone being tied up and terrorised, for instance - but with a recognition that this is now a cliché, so it throws in some humour as well (such as placing a paper crown in the head of a torture victim!) The Loved Ones has a sense of its ancestry, and manages to be a very efficient and well-told tale in its own right without reinventing the wheel. There's tension here, there are edge-of-seat moments here, and as well as these there is even something quite heart-warming in the quite brilliant closing shots and the ultimate message of a movie which seems more and more cleverly-titled on reflection. This is one of my favourite films of the year so far; if you like earnest, well-made and well-written horror genre cinema, then you'll find much to love in The Loved Ones.
The appearance of the transfer here is excellent, with good levels of soft light, warm, lifelike colours and rich blacks (very important in terms of making some of the scenes work). The director of photography, Simon Chapman, has done a great job framing shots here. Sound levels are clear and easily-audible, with a choice between 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound (and a hard-of-hearing English subtitles option). In terms of extras, there are interviews with: director Sean Byrne - a self-effacing chap who rather does this great film down; actors Robin McLeavy; Xavier Samuel; John Brumpton and Jess McNamee, together with some B-roll behind-the-scenes footage.
Review by Keri O'Shea
|Released by Optimum Home Entertainment|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|