I think it's time for a new sub-genre label to describe movies like The Loved Ones. I propose "torture schlock". Torture schlock is essentially a derivative of torture porn, but with one significant difference. Torture schlock is set apart from torture porn by its grinning, giggling, maniacal, fruit-loop caricature antagonists. Torture schlock features an unholy combination of bloody gruesome violence and ridiculous cartoon villains that are impossible to take seriously. For other examples of this sub-genre, check out just about any film on Rob Zombie's CV. I guess the dichotomy of the extreme violence and the antagonist's dementedly cheery demeanour is supposed to be unsettling? But I just find it bemusing and, ultimately, ineffective as "horror".
Oddly, The Loved Ones starts like yet another depressing Aussie drama. Brent (Xavier Samuel) and his mother are a barely functioning family, struggling to cope with the aftermath of a serious car accident Brent and his father were involved in. The only shining light in Brent's miserable life is girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) who not only tolerates the "emotional retard" (her jocular characterisation of Brent, not mine), but clearly loves him.
It turns out, however, that Holly isn't the only girl on campus with feelings for Brent. Prior to the school dance, the nerdishly cute Lola (Robin McLeavy) apprehensively approaches the melancholy Brent and nervously asks him to accompany her to the dance. He politely declines her invitation because he's already committed to taking Holly. Brent might have crap taste in music and be well overdue for a haircut, but at least his moral compass is working.
Now, up until this point in the movie, everything is played pretty straight. Yes, the characters are all emotionally damaged (this is an Australian film after all), but they are all "normal". The characterisations are serious, and everyone seems like a "real" person, including Lola. But then writer/director, Sean Byrne, switches on the infinite improbability drive...
Lola's father (John Brumpton) kidnaps Brent, on the night of the school dance, so that his precious Lola can have a fun evening torturing and tormenting him, at their secluded country cottage, as some sort of bizarre substitute for attending the dance with him.
Lola is... the Pretty In Pink, Prom Night, Diller Killer!
While Lola and her Daddy inflict cruel and unusual punishment on poor young Brent, The Love Ones occasionally checks in with Brent's mate, and his catatonic school dance date, smoking dope and listening to heavy metal in the school car park, completely oblivious to Brent's fate. It's an utterly pointless sub-plot that's only linked to the main story towards the very end of proceedings. The link doesn't really justify its inclusion, which really screws up the pace and tone of the movie. Maybe Byrne was going for comic relief with these scenes but they're not funny and, like the pickles in a McDonald's cheeseburger, it's difficult to understand why they are there.
Similar to Tomorrow When The War Began, I wanted to like The Loved Ones. Whilst it starts like another dreary Aussie drama, it's not long before the splatter starts and this film drives headlong into genre territory. I am, again, grateful that an Aussie film-maker is attempting an entertaining genre pic. And to be fair, it is a better example of its genre than Tomorrow When The War Began was of its genre. But, (and you knew the "but" was coming didn’t you), it's hopelessly uneven in tone, and finds itself in a sub-genre that I find rather unsatisfying.
Watching someone have their feet nailed to the floor is not suspenseful or scary. It's just plain gross. When the perpetrator is a melodramatic lunatic it goes from being gross to just plain silly. Perhaps there is scope here for very dark comedy, and maybe that's what Byrne was shooting for, but it's not funny enough (to me at least) to really work on that level.
OK, I did chuckle once, at Lola's theme song, but that probably had more to do with my disdain for Casey Chambers' whiny little ditty "Am I Pretty Enough" than any comedic genius associated with including it in The Loved Ones soundtrack.
All that said, The Loved Ones is certainly no worse than a lot of Hollywood horror movies. Thankfully, the days of Australian horror movies being sub-standard excrement well below the lowest standard set by Hollywood (I'm thinking Blood Moon, Houseboat Horror, and Body Melt, just to name a few) are well and truly behind us. Whilst The Loved Ones wasn't really to my taste, it is very well made, very well performed, and sure to please those torture schlock fans who do like to watch people have their feet nailed to the floor by a grinning nut-job.