Teen-horror is a subgenre that seems to be synonymous with bad acting, poor plot development, and the mindless slaughter of a bunch of stupid and unlikable characters. Sean Byrne's film "The Loved Ones" could be considered a teen horror - it does revolve around a school dance - but it conforms to none of these parameters, succeeding rather brilliantly in its uniqueness.
The film's plot is relatively simple - Brent (Xavier Samuel), who was recently involved in a car crash that resulted in his father's death, turns down the invitation of a seemingly shy girl Lola (Robin McLeavy) to the school's end-of-the-year dance. Lola's daddy (John Brumpton) then kidnaps Brent, who them becomes a victim of horrendously violent and gruesome acts of torture at the hands of this macabre father-daughter team.
However, though the majority of the film's running time is occupied with grisly and painful-to-watch torture, it never descends into a gruesome conventional territory in its delivery. Lola, who seems to be the mastermind of the deadly acts, is a stunningly interesting character. Though she's repulsively evil, she's also extremely adorable, a feature that Robin McLeavy totally takes advantage of, with help from director Byrne, who dresses her up in a pink dress and paper crown and proudly shows her listening to a cutesy song whose lyrics declare "am I not pretty enough?".
McLeavy's performace is brilliantly wacky and off-kilter. It's such a unique piece of work that one would be hard pressed to find anything really like it - perhaps the closest character comparison would be "Misery's" Annie Wilkes, though McLeavy never tries or comes close to emulating her. Instead, she captivates the screen with an irascible and incomparable presence. It will be fascinating to see where she goes next.
The true accomplishment of the film, however, is Sean Byrne's daring and captivating directorial style. Unlike so many other horror movies who use a clicheed gritty and muted color palate, Byrne isn't afraid of utilizing color and lighting to create tension. For example, the disco ball which is ever present in the torture room is perfectly unsettling, as is the fact that the torture room is actually Lola's living room - a subtle detail that makes a huge difference. It's Byrne's unflinching vision that keeps the movie from falling too deep into unwatchable torture porn territory.
On the other hand, the film does occasionally fall into convention and like any good horror movie, it has its wee plot holes. Plus, the ending feels a bit abrupt - a cop-out that misses out on some potential profundity. However, the problems are so minor and inconsequential that they can easily be overlooked. The film is so successful - it draws you in, violently shakes you up, and never quite lets you go.
See it: If you're in the mood for a smart and bloody horror movie or you want to see a really indescribable female performance.
Skip it: If you're a bit squeamish. The movie is a cringe-fest! I literally had nightmares the night I watched it. This is not for the faint of heart.