Upon watching the above trailer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that new Australian horror flick, The Loved Ones, is actually going to be the story of Lola Stone — a plain yet pretty, somewhat shy and possibly much maligned schoolgirl with a bad cases of the unrequiteds. Maybe a cross between Carrie and Pretty in Pink, updated for the iPod age. So I was pleased to be invited along to a review screening last Wednesday and keen to see what would be delivered onto the screen.
Unfortunately, The Loved Ones proved to be a disappointment, in no small part because what we get is not Lola’s story at all, but that of Brent, the boy Lola’s father kidnaps for her. (Actually, Lola doesn’t really have a story; she’s just psychotic; never mind why, it’s obviously unimportant.) We’re treated instead to a fairly pedestrian script, fraught with logic problems, stereotypical characters and a sub-plot that’s left wither on the vine. The black comedy was too cheesy for my palette and the parts where the audience laughed the most were, it seems, unintentionally funny.
To be fair, the cast did a good job with what they had to work with. Robyn McLeavy is an hysterically psychotic Lola and Xavier Samuel’s Brent, although vocally crippled for much of the film, comes into his own during the prolonged and realistic torture scenes. Terror, fury, defiance, pain and vengeance all play with equal eloquence across his perpetually blood-streaked face.
But the story is both illogical and way over the top, and its characters barely formed. I found myself caring for none of them, because none of them seemed like real people as much as they did cinematic shorthand. Which is shame, because unless I care about the people in a film, unless I’m drawn into their lives and made to feel as though they could be real, I care very little about what happens to them. And that includes torture.
Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I stuffed myself so full of splatter films in my teens and early twenties that it takes something really violent and gross and disgusting to get to me these days. Maybe — or maybe I’m just not that cheap a date. You want to keep me interested, you better make me care. Otherwise it’s just power drills and fake blood and prosthetics and a hell of a lot of screaming. Very well done, but of less concern to me than the fact that my boysenberry choc-top is all gone.
What also irritated me throughout the entire screening — and this is by no means unique to The Loved Ones, I hasten to add — was the unsubtle prevalence of the male gaze. The lingering, sexualised attention of the camera on its female subjects is used again and again, with particular emphasis on camera (and thus audience) as unsuspected (male) voyeur. Not only Lola, but both the film’s girlfriend characters — blonde, wholesome Holly (Victoria Thaine); goth-with-a-heart-of-gold Mia (Jessica McNamee) — are treated in this manner. The closest the film comes to admitting a female gaze are the shots of Lola’s scrapbooks — of course, even then, Lola’s gaze isn’t “female” so much as it is “psychotic”, and what she’s gazing upon aren’t real boys, they’re photographs or clippings from magazines, ones in which the subject is quite aware of the camera lens. Now there is someone Lola desires very much but never do we get any quasi-erotic, voyeuristic sequences of him. Which is a shame, as it would have added a genuinely creepy texture to the film.
The Loved Ones is not a bad movie or indeed an overly stupid one it. It’s slickly filmed, without dispensing of any of the gritty realist aesthetic Australian cinema does so well, and the gruesome special effects are faultless. It’s quite well-paced, and lots of nasty stuff happens, and there are some moments of genuine horror and humour. But when all is said and done, it’s a very safe film, and a very conservative one, as a lot of the horror genre tends to be — yes, I know us horror fans don’t like to hear that particular c-word, but it’s oh so true. I still mourn the lost opportunity for a killer climax — one that would have punched the audience square in the guts, instead of leaving us sniggering in disbelief — but sadly it was not to be.
The Loved Ones opens in Australia on 30 September. If you’re up for a spot of mindless torture-porn, with a distinct Australian flavour, then mark the date in your diary. As for myself, I might hang back wait for something a little more dangerous to creep its way across my path.