“Torture porn” is a lazy journalistic media label for the resurgence of splatter films in the mid-00s due to the phenomenal commercial success of the hit and miss Saw franchise (2004 - 2010) and Eli Roth’s solid duology of ‘Hostel’ (2005) and ‘Hostel Part II’ (2007). A whole load of imitators followed milking the cash from the cow that were often third-rate efforts such as the God-awful ‘Captivity’ (2007) but also included more decent fare like ‘Turistas’ (2006) that exploited this type of horror entailing prolonged violent sequences taken to the extreme. Explicitly depicted in these scenes are sadistic torturous mutilation supplemented by a fair amount of female nudity thrown in over the duration of the movies’ running times.
These conventions were already on display in the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis the main innovator of splatter cinema who laid down its foundations way back in 1963 with ‘Blood Feast’ the first gore film proper and followed it up employing the same gory formula with such movies as ‘Two Thousand Maniacs!’ (1964), ‘Color Me Blood Red’ (1965), ‘A Taste of Blood’ (1967) etc. Lewis’ legacy would give him the nickname “The Godfather of Gore” before Lucio Fulci would also take the moniker with his largely overrated outright horror entries in his filmography that followed his fantastic giallo period. Detractors re-branded the splatter sub-genre as “torture porn” for this new wave of movies which just simply displayed the limited imaginations of some mainstream critics who have never had much respect for horror as a whole as a serious genre of film anyway and know little of its cinematic history.
2009 Independent Australian production ‘The Loved Ones’ finally getting a limited US theatrical release in June and has long been available in my native homeland of Britain since the year of its initial release in 2010 came along at a time when the splatter sub-genre, oh sorry, the “torture porn” sub-genre was starting to see diminishing returns at the box office. ‘Saw VI’ released in ’09 underperformed making the least amount of mula in the series even though it was a huge step up from the mediocrity of the previous two instalments.
Now remakes and reboots of brand horror titles are the big performers symbolising the sad sorry state of the genre in America. Little creative vision is on display here, with Hollywood instead opting for product renewal filmmaking to appeal to the already existing fanbases of franchises and to reintroduce iconic movie maniacs already deeply embedded in popular culture to a new generation who are even in the slightest bit aware of these famous characters. There is no care for the material just a hack mentality to sell the product with no name music directors assigned to make it all look good having no idea as to what goes into making horror cinema. The utterly dreadful A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) is a prime example of all this.
‘The Loved Ones’ is a breath of fresh air that takes elements of (I really hate using this term) so-called “torture porn” but does not rely on it as its main focal point in selling itself. It is a lot more than this and has an immense energy about it bursting with creativity that is sorely lacking in stateside major studio horror today. While the torture sequences are indeed bloodily brutal and supremely uncomfortable and squirm inducing, the tense taut psychological aspects that echo Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) is what will have you on the edge of your seat. It does not do anything vastly different and I can even say that the premise is quite tired but writer and director Sean Byrne injects ultra-realism along with lashings of black comedy into the proceedings and concentrates heavily on characterization that is all wrapped up in a cleaver narrative structure. This is all aided very well by Robin McLeavy’s juggernaut of a performance as the deranged and twisted main antagonist Lola Stone "Princess" who has sunk into a delusional world making for one of the screen’s more memorable screen villainesses in a long time.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is a 17-year-old suffering from depression bordering on suicidal due to his grieving of the death of his father in a car accident in which he was driving. The horrific events that transpire are connected to this opening scene and are the cause of Brent’s misery in his parental loss. Six months after the tragic incident he is asked to the school prom by quiet girl Lola (McLeavy) who he turns down. Lola then later abducts him with the help of her equally psychotic father played by John Brumpton who is also creepily effective in an obsessive relationship that disturbingly alludes to an incestuous one. From here, Brent battles to survive during the loony father and daughter’s bizarre celebratory ritual in which they have him as the centrepiece.
Right from the outset we are introduced to Brent’s life; the trauma, his friends, girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) and family. Byrne totally immerses us in Brent’s world and we grow immediately attached to the people who are not only important in his life but are all-instrumental to the story and its climax. The plot is a tried and tested formula but it is the director’s clever little tweaks to it that make it engaging viewing. While the basic storyline is been there done that it does take some twists and turns along the way that will surprise you and have you totally engrossed. This includes a sub-plot that features prominently throughout detailing Brent’s best friend (Richard Wilson) Jamie’s big prom date with the also emotionally troubled rebel Mia (Jessica McNamee) that might appear to seem unnecessary at first but is actually an essential part of the main story. It also interestingly juxtaposes Brent’s frightening plight with key scenes in both storylines playing out against each other. Thanks to Sean Byrne’s sharp writing and direction, this also helps the pace hurtle along rather than subjecting us to the monotony of a single location.
The movie lives up to the hype. As well as the top quality of the writing and direction balancing perfectly the horror and the comedic elements that not once overlap the shock factor never corrupting it and strong acting all round especially from Robin McLeavy, it is all beautifully filmed thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Simon Chapman. To top it all off nicely the soundtrack featuring contributed rock songs and an original score is atmospherically enhancing. 'The Loved Ones' might not be considerably original but it is testament to what a talented filmmaker can do with a well worn out premise and gives it a refreshingly artistic make over. It is dementedly crazy, disturbing, scary, funny and Steve Byrne lends a lot of emotion to the material that is instantly relatable to any of us that went through those horrible awkward teenage years. Insane fun.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.