Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: The Loved Ones.
It takes a lot for me to actually enjoy a torture-heavy horror film. Someone getting mutilated is grosser than it is scary for me, they’re just not the kind of film I’m drawn to. The Loved Ones, directed by Sean Byrne, is one of the most recent good examples of how torture can be suspenseful. It mixes comedy in to lighten the darker elements and torture itself is not the sole source of horror. I feel like I’m overemphasising the torture now. There are aspects that could make this appear to be a torture-porn-esque movie but that really isn’t the case. More than anything it is full of tension and suspense. It’s one of those films that gets going quickly and from that point on is constantly surprising. Every new development unveils a fresh new horror. This Australian film has a few aspects that could seem off-putting but it’s one of the best horror movies of the past few years.
A teenager, Brent (Xavier Samuel), is driving with his dad in the car until a bloodied man appears in the middle of the road. In swerving away the car hits a tree and Brent’s dad is killed. Six months later and the accident has left Brent severely depressed. His girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) is helping but he still spends a lot of time doing nothing and smoking weed as well as self-harming. He keeps a razor blade on a necklace round his neck. An odd girl from school called Lola (Robin McLeavy) asks him to the upcoming dance but he politely declines. Soon after, following an argument with his mother, he goes out to his usual smoke spot at the top of a hill. A man knocks him out and haul’s him away. He wakes up tied to a chair and wearing a tuxedo. Lola wants the perfect end-of-year dance and her father will help make that happen. Brent is the guest of honour at her terrible prom and from there the horrors begin.
There’s a lot about The Loved Ones that could appear to be pretty clichéd but it subverts expectations in some really interesting ways. If you just look at a basic plot synopsis it could almost appear to be another generic horror movie about a killer with his or her own thing. There were a slew of horror movies like this in the 80’s. Every killer needed a hook. Maybe they killed on specific holidays (April Fool’s Day, Silent Night Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine) or just had a killing gimmick of some kind (Maniac had scalping, The Burning had shears, Nightmare on Elm Street had dreams and glove blades). Every slasher needed something to set them apart because other than that one aspect the films would all be pretty similar. The Loved Ones could come across that way; Lola is the deranged killer who wants the perfect prom. But it’s not just a minor differentiator to give her an excuse to kill people; it’s an integral part of her character. Unlike those films with a gimmicky killer, death is not treated lightly here. There’s a side plot about Brent’s friend going to prom with a girl that seems unrelated but actually shows the repercussions of Lola’s actions. It also brings in moments of levity to break up the bleakness of Brent’s situation. The girl that is with Brent’s friend had a brother who was killed by Lola. It’s not like most horror movies with killers where the killings only really have an impact on the main characters. Here death has an appropriately deep impact on people. This girl has been emotionally damaged by Lola’s actions just as Brent has been by his dad’s death. It’s a refreshing change from other horror movies where violence is only really there to threaten the main character and make us scared for them. As heightened as Lola’s world is we are reminded that it’s still the real world and that makes it all the more horrifying.
In many horror movies about a killer, the reason the main character survives is pretty much due to luck. When we ask what sets this person apart from all the other victims the answer is usually “because they’re the main character”. Especially when it comes to ritualistic killers like in The Loved Ones, their methods work up until this point where they arbitrarily fail so the protagonist can win. In this film it actually makes a lot of sense that Brent would be the one to have a chance at escaping. His self-harming habits have left him a little more desensitised to pain and the razorblade around his neck could come in handy. It’s little touches like this that sets this film apart. Most horror movies are content with the audience just accepting protagonist’s successes through luck and coincidence. The Loved Ones really cares for its characters and it’s their personalities that help them rather than plot contrivances.
Outside the strengths of the characters and plot it’s also a particularly nasty little film. From drill lobotomies to vocal cord numbing injections of bleach to the throat, the villains are terrifyingly sadistic. Household items take on a macabre form in the hands of Lola and her father. But the horror is still not simply derived from how disgusting things get. I can’t emphasise enough that the film is much more suspenseful than it is disgustingly cringe-worthy. Very quickly we are shown how far the bad guys are willing to go and from that point on we feel constantly unsafe. Even when it seems like Brent could get away we’re reminded that this is reality and when out in the middle of nowhere there isn’t anywhere to escape to. The film seems like it could be a pretty simple story but there are so many twists and turns that whatever happens next is always unknown. Similarly to a previous 31 Days of Horror entry, Inside, it’s a self-contained horror-thriller that is relentlessly tense except for brief moments where we’re able to catch our breath.
The Loved Ones initially appears to be like every other horror film but it constantly defies expectations. The characters are well rounded, well defined and defy clichés. For a small story it’s incredibly detailed and little touches like the bizarre song Lola listens to (it sings “Am I not pretty enough? Is my heart too broken? … I crave, I love, I’ve waited long enough”) bring even more character to the film. That somewhat messed up song speaks to her desperation and pain. In a warped way it also eggs her on to do what she’s doing. The family dynamic of the killers is also a great source of creepiness and the more we learn the more unsettling things get. Other than the side-plot at the prom, which strays into being filler, it’s an excellent horror movie. There are shocks, tension, chills, laughs, scenes that are hard to watch and for once we actually care about the characters. It’s hard to successfully subvert expectations and horror conventions while also just being entertaining and working as a horror film, but this film does exactly that
James M Macleod