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Before You Break Her Heart, Think It Over

The Loved Ones (2010)

Film Society of Lincoln Center

Horror needs more female villains, killers filled with estrogen to rival the genre’s male big dogs (such as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, to name a few). There have been a few women invited to join the murderer’s row: the below-middle-ground “Sleepaway Camp” series had Angela Baker; and the latter “Prom Night” entries introduced the homicidal specter Mary Lou. But the role of women in horror has far too often been relegated to victim, or heroine, or nude shower inhabitant.

First-time Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne flips that sad truth on its head with the gonzo “The Loved Ones,” an unhinged — in the best possible ways — blend of extreme gore, wince-inducing shocks and self-aware comedy. Antagonized by a psychotic high-school girl Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), the film’s protagonist isn’t a damsel but a dude in distress. And that’s just one of the many aspects of “The Loved Ones” that feels fresh.

Ms. McLeavy, as the film’s franchise-worthy antagonist, is a revelation, finding a difficult balance between palpable insanity and believable vulnerability. Mr. Byrne’s script doesn’t make it easy for the actress to earn sympathy, either. “The Loved Ones,” both written and directed by Mr. Byrne, takes place around a prom, one that Brent (Xavier Samuel) plans to attend with his warm-hearted girlfriend. Lola, smitten by the long-haired and rough-around-the-edges Brent, asks him to accompany her to the dance, which he kindly rejects. Instead of crying into a pillow, Lola gets her nutso dad (John Brumpton) to kidnap Brent. Bound to a chair in her kitchen, Brent is subjected to torture that’d make even the demented girl in Takashi Miike’s “Audition” squirm.

Mr. Byrne is clearly influenced by a slew of cinema styles, from the teenage angst of John Hughes to the bizarre subversion of John Waters, even the female-outcast-gets-revenge set-up of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” The Aussie rookie doesn’t rape and pillage the classics here, though; rather, he mashes his influences together into something of a new horror breed: the shameless date movie. “The Loved Ones” is best consumed amidst a theater full of loud, energetic couples. Lola Stone’s sick antics aim right at the core of female rebellion, though not all scorned ladies should be advised to carve their initials inside a hand-drawn heart on a guy’s chest with a knife. Nor should they drill a hole into a boy’s forehead, but that goes without saying, really. Leave such over-the-top vengeance to Lola Stone, whose methods of madness are perfect for male filmgoers hoping to cuddle with their scared dates inside a dark multiplex.

“The Loved Ones” works best in Lola’s bloody hands. It’s a shame that Mr. Byrne didn’t feel the same. A series of cutaways to Brent’s hottie-repelling friend’s date with a pretty Goth chick earns a few laughs, yet it’s an ultimately pointless subplot offering no more than obvious comic relief. Mr. Byrne’s approach to the script’s more horrific elements is simultaneously witty and unpredictable — it’s so much fun watching where he’ll go with the horror that the characters outside of Lola’s home simply distract.

Mr. Byrne favors long, edit-free shots to preface nasty money-shots. Unlike many genre filmmakers, he’s not afraid to show what’s promised. The camera holds on a buzzing drill as it inches toward a character’s forehead; and, damn it, there’s going to be maximum impact. Scenes of this ilk in “The Loved Ones” owe much to 1970s Italian splatter champ Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie,” in which a woman’s eye is slowly pulled into a wooden spike for what feels like an eternity. In Mr. Byrne’s film, a bit involving a broken-wristed character waiting to be run over by a police car achieves a Fulci-like victory.

Currently, “The Loved Ones” is without any U.S. theatrical release plans, although Mr. Byrne has stated in interviews that potential deals are being worked out. Films of this nature (i.e. ballsy horror pictures made overseas) typically bypass your local AMC and head right for DVD shelves. Here’s one that deserves better. Similar to the French “Inside” (2007) and Spanish “[REC]” (2007) before it, “The Loved Ones” is a call-to-arms for an emerging horror market (Australia) that’s designed for crowded nighttime screenings. Aside from being one of the most compelling big-screen psychos in years, Lola Stone is, at heart, a crowd-pleaser.

"The Loved Ones" screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Scary Movies 4 series.


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