An Australian horror picture in the tradition of New French Extremism, Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones adheres to the principle that if you delve into full-tilt repulsiveness wholly enough, the rest will just sort of take care of itself. 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. And so while The Loved Ones is, as many others have declared, the best horror film to come out of Australia since 2005’s Wolf Creek, its manic, satisfying thrills couldn’t be further from that film’s cold brutality. It’s certainly nasty (a pack of emaciated cellar-dwelling torture victims with a taste for roadkill and human flesh makes even the bunch in Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs look meek), but always glibly so, which proves much more fun to watch.
After rejecting an offer to attend a school dance with social outcast Lola (Robin McLeavy), mopey Hot Topic goth-stud Brent (Xavier Samuel) is soon enough drugged and bound and brought before his jilted would-be lover for her rather imaginative idea of a first date, which is of course a primal fear for attractive popular kids everywhere. Brent, tied to a dining room chair by Lola’s almost absurdly creepy father (John Brumpton, because Tom Noonan was likely unavailable), is treated to an evening of increasingly outlandish abuse and torture, and we’re treated to a veritable feast of pop-art sounds and images, nearly every frame bursting with glitter balls and streamers and, of course, big bright swashes of blood. Lola herself, sporting a hot-pink cocktail number and a matching paper crown, looks the very picture of Lynch-like goodie-goodie terror, and when wielding a knife or power drill she’s in her own way about as menacing as horror villains come. If it’s standard slasher practice for the principle baddie to remain either faceless or detestable or both, The Loved Ones bucks the trend: Its killer is the most charismatic character in the film.
As is usually the case with even top-notch horror films, most of what follows is predictable, every narrative machination telegraphed well in advance. But Byrne has fun doodling in the margins, reconfiguring the details where he can. When Lola begins drilling an inch-wide hole through poor Brent’s skull, a simple but gruesome act of violence becomes a play on penetration—the virile young woman subduing and debasing her captive male victim rather than the by-now tiresome inverse. It doesn’t feel like The Loved Ones is making any kind of statement, mind you, but the role reversal does register as a self-conscious wink, a tacit acknowledgement that film’s sensibility is more playful than that which informs many of its contemporaries. It’s evident in the little gestures, in a flair for color and composition and general sense of style that too few films like it have the sense to bother with. Sometimes the film resorts to pandering to its audience (Lola’s comeuppance is gleefully embellished for our own satisfaction far more than for Brent’s), but if The Loved Ones takes the easy route, it at least makes sure to deliver the goods.