It’s about an already-spoken-for senior, Brent, who turns down Lola, a cute and clearly shy girl, when she asks him to be her prom date. Brent, who is clearly not a popular kid in school, in fact he’s recently become kind of a loner and a pothead after his father died in car accident, is quite kind when turning down the meek lass, but such kindness is lost on little Lola. Her father then proceeds to kidnap Brent and force him to be Lola’s date to a lovely prom that happens to take place in their kitchen.
That’s basically it, plot-wise, actually. Indeed it is this lean, uncomplicated plot that is one of first time writer/director Sean Byrne’s greatest strengths. It’s not bogged down by unnecessary side stories (though we do get periodic glimpses of how Brent’s best friend’s date at the actual prom is going) or weighty exposition surrounding why Brent has become such a loner. No, THE LOVED ONES is a blazing 84 minutes of constant one-upmanship. Every time you begin to think Byrne couldn’t possibly top how outrageous poor Brent’s night is becoming, he savagely shoves adrenaline needles into the heart of the film scene after scene until it transforms into a ravaged, bold, and bloody as hell beast that will have you laughing and cringing with alarming regularity.
It’s so refreshing to come across a horror movie that is this enthusiastic about being hardcore. The never-ending practical gore effects alone are a horror fans wet dream in THE LOVED ONES, but thanks to Byrne’s keen guidance the graphic and disturbing material is never overpowering or self-indulgent. With a combination of extremely clever production design and camera work he’s delivered a very commercial-looking film that is unbelievably happy to be on the societal fringe of what people expect from horror movies these days. I realize that’s a strange thing to say – isn’t all horror on the societal fringe? – but there are so few strictly-for-the-fans horror movies that have heartfelt stories with actual commentary on what it means to be a teenager these days (every teen in this movie is genuinely interesting) that when they do come along, they’re such stalwart outliers that they might as well be in a league of their own.
THE LOVED ONES is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It’s evident from every page of the script and cut of the camera that Byrne dissected other horror films of its ilk and meticulously figured out how to cull together the ideal entertainer. He steals from no one and yet evokes the implacable, raucous spirit of the ’80s and early ’90s, a time when everyone on set was pushing boundaries so they could play in their own demented little sandbox. Yet at the same time it’s very modern with no attempts to be a throwback to, say, the dark humor era of Peter Jackson, Stuart Gordon, Sam Rami, John Landis and Michele Soavi. It’s got a really great soundtrack and original score that alternates between a delight to listen to and a wake-up call telling you (and the characters, if only they could hear it) to get the fuck out of there.
And my God does it have one hell of a performance from Robin McLeavy! Thanks to her, Lola rises above being just the weird girl in school with repeated bouts of unrequited love and becomes an instantly memorable passionate and pursuant psychopath. Though she’s the clear queen of the show, everyone else does a great job in the film as well, particularly Xavier Samuel as Brent. Considering early on his capacity for speech is paralyzed when Lola injects some kind of blue household cleaning product right into his vocal chords, we only get to hear a few sentences from him and from then on out it’s all show and no tell.
And the things Byrne shows will perk even the most jaded horror fan right up. I shan’t spoil any of the gags or surprises, but his admirably sick sense of humor is matched only by his carnal knowledge of the kinds of things horror fans like to see in their movies. And it’s all captured with gloriously crisp, no bullshit cinematography that really knows how to put the goods on a pedestal and when to pull back if things threaten to nudge a hair past over-the-top. It’s a daunting task to balance all of the above so harmoniously, no doubt, but Byrne does it with such deft skill and pacing that you’re never given any time to wander from the shocking fun at hand. I have no idea what this new Australian maestro is up to next, but I haven’t seen a feature film directorial debut with this much personality in a long, long time and cannot wait to see anything else he attaches his name to.
Hopefully THE LOVED ONES comes by a festival near you in the near future, so keep your ears open while I keep an Internet-scouring eye on any import DVDs and Blu-rays. It boggles my mind that no US distributor has snapped this dark beauty up from the festival circuit (it’s been making the rounds for months now) as it’s easy to see how successful of a crowd pleaser it is, but I’ve long given up trying to predict what in the horror world is going to be a big hit. All I know is that if you’re reading Horror’s Not Dead, THE LOVED ONES is a perfect match for you.