Monday, June 17, 2013

30 Days of Nightmares #17: THE LOVED ONES (2009)

The Story: A disturbed teenage girl, with the help of her equally disturbed father, kidnaps the boy of her dreams... and tortures him.

Expectations: I first read about this Australian indie film in Rue Morgue magazine, which noted that it had been "kept underground and away from public eyes" for several years.  The reviewer added: "That's a real shame, because THE LOVED ONES ranks up there with the best horror films of the last twenty years."  I couldn't resist a tease like that, so I immediately put the film in my Netflix queue.  While I was waiting, I read a Netflix review that praised the filmmaking, but questioned the filmmaker's intentions, asking: "Why did you spend three to five years of your life making this film? What did you want your audience to think and feel?... I don't understand what pleasure one gets out of making this type of film, or watching this type of film over and over." I am not a fan of movies that are simply mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited, so I wanted to find out if THE LOVED ONES had an ansswer.

Reaction: There are three interweaving storylines in this film, and the differences between them will probably determine whether or not a viewer likes the film as a whole.  The first story is about Brent, a troubled teen who inadvertently caused his father's death and has been suffering from extreme guilt ever since -- a fact that prompts his girlfriend Holly to call him "emotionally retarded."  The second story is about Lola and her father, a pair of delusional sadists who kidnap Brent and torture him at their own deeply twisted three-person prom.  The third story is about Brent's friend Jamie (a humorous fuck-up) and Jamie's prom date Mia (a hot fuck-up).

The first story is surprisingly poignant, and I think it provides the answer to the Netflix reviewer's urgent questions.  At the beginning of the film, Brent is ready to give up on life.  In one scene, he very nearly commits suicide, out of a desire to escape from overwhelming emotional pain.  He is also shown cutting himself, a physical form of release.  When Brent is kidnapped and tortured, he displays a grim determination to endure whatever pain is thrown at him.  Why?  Because it's easier to endure physical pain than it is to endure certain kinds of emotional pain.  And because that's how we all survive -- by enduring.  I don't want to get too pretentious about this, but let me just say that I found Brent's suffering and his escape from suffering to be convincingly real.  That's what made the film worthwhile to me.

I'm tempted to say that the black comedy revolving around the savage prom queen (the "PRETTY IN PINK" story) and the comic relief related to the fuck-up couple diminish the power of the main story... but in fact they probably help to offset the overwhelming intensity.  I was occasionally annoyed by the ridiculousness of Lola's prom night charade, feeling that it was too gimmicky... but maybe I needed that distraction.  I'm reminded of a film I saw a few years ago called THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, an unremittingly bleak and realistic torture movie.  There was no catharsis in that movie; it was as depressing as an unresolved real-life murder, and it left me feeling completely empty.  THE LOVED ONES at least avoids that effect.

The third story exists mostly independent of the other two.  It unfolds alone, like outtakes from a completely different movie.  Well, that's not really fair.... Tonally, it belongs to the same movie. ( It isn't as out of place as that ridiculous chicken truck scene in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or anything.)  Actually, it manages to balance the solemnity of the first story with the jagged humor of the second... and, in its own subtle way, to set the stage for the possibility of an ending that is hopeful and even -- dare I say it -- sweet.  It shows that the filmmaker actually cares about his characters.

Like the Netflix reviewer, I don't want to watch this film over and over.  But I have to say that I'm glad I watched it once, and I'm glad the filmmaker took the time to make it.  I wouldn't rank it as "one of the best horror films of the last twenty years," but that might only be because the savage cinema (I can't bring myself to call it "torture porn," because the misleading designation suggests a very coldblooded motivation on the part of the filmmaker) is not my favorite subgenre. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Where to begin?  I guess the power drill sequence...

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