I didn’t attend my high school prom (or anyone else’s for that matter.) None of my friends did – I hung out with the witchy, punky, goth crowd and school dances were generally viewed with disdain. After Grade 9 I avoided them altogether, along with many of my classes. The high school experience was mostly a spectator sport for me. As a consequence, I don’t have strong connections to many movies based on or around prom, apart from Carrie – I’m immune to their spell of nostalgia, and old biases die hard.
Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (2009) is a deliciously twisted take on the traditional high school rite of passage, a hot pink jawbreaker with a surprisingly vicious core. The Australian horror film could rightly be categorized as torture porn, which usually isn’t my particular bag either, but its gleeful sense of humour, unabashed absurdity, and candy-coated aesthetic actually make charming its mining of the depths of human depravity and suffering. Much of this is due to the electrifying performance of Robin McLeavy as Lola Stone, the seemingly sweet but mousy loner who oozes charisma and insanity in equal doses when spurned by her high school crush, Brent (a brooding and unwashed Xavier Samuel.) The story in a nutshell: girl likes boy, girl asks boy to prom, boy turns her down, boy ends up with some new holes in his body. You know, the typical high school love story. Throw in some incestuous overtones, a B-story with a surprisingly well-handled twist, and a fittingly saccharine earworm of a character theme, and you have a film I’d happily place in my Top 20 horror list.
I’m going to get into some spoilers in the next sections, so if you’ve not yet seen the film, I highly recommend watching it immediately.
The film opens with Brent and his father in a car. Brent is learning how to drive and seems to be doing okay until a shirtless, mutilated, dead-eyed young man steps onto the road. Brent swerves to avoid hitting him and smashes the car into a tree, killing his father. The fallout from this moment is heavily implicated throughout the rest of the film in both Brent’s story and in the secondary plot, which follows Brent’s friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) and his prom date, moody goth Mia (Jessica McNamee.)
For all of its giddy indulgence in a pop-art pastiche of grim violence subverting rites-of-passage, this is a film that is deeply concerned with grief, and the way that we cope (or, rather, fail to cope) with devastating loss. Our protagonist is not a typical angst-filled teen – six months after the death of his father, he is dealing with suicidal impulses, a deep sense of guilt, and a mother whose desperation to keep her son close is pushing him away. He has a lovely and loving girlfriend, Holly (well-played by Victoria Thaine), but he is unable to express himself emotionally with her. He is a cutter, a fact that we discover through a close shot of his sliced-up torso and his habit of carrying a razor blade on a chain around his neck. The shot of his self-inflicted wounds is a bloody foreshadowing of the further torment that will be inflicted upon his flesh later in the film by Lola – we will find out later that Lola is actually responsible for the former set of wounds as well, albeit more indirectly. Lola’s trail of destruction has shattered not only Brent and his mother, but also Mia and her family.
Mia is one of the most interesting characters in the film for me. Midway through a first viewing of the film, you could be forgiven for questioning the significance of the secondary plot, and wondering why it was included – Jamie and Mia’s date to the prom involves a great deal of drinking and drug use, and no real communication. Its connection to the main story seems tenuous at best. But its inclusion is actually brilliant as a pointed but subtle response to slut-shaming, as well as a jumping-off point for a dialogue about rape culture. As the night wears on, Mia seems hell-bent on obliteration. Before entering the prom, they spend much of the film in Jamie’s car. The camera lingers on Mia as she drinks deeply from a large bottle of vodka. We get shot after shot of Mia smoking an enormous joint as though it were keeping her alive. Jamie watches in disbelief, awe, and trepidation, eventually suggesting that they go inside. While exiting the car, she stumbles and falls to the ground. They make it into the prom, but they don’t last long. During what seems to be their first spin on the dancefloor, they are ejected – a wasted Mia has been caught by the principal performing a sexual act on Jamie. When they get back to the car, they sit silently until she suddenly starts kissing them and they end up having sex in the back seat. Although she is the sexual aggressor in her encounters with Jamie, she is clearly incapacitated and unable to truly consent. In his infatuation and desire to lose his virginity, Jamie disregards this fact. His first sexual act is one of rape. As likeable as he is – and he is a very likeable character – it is important to recognize this act for what it is. In making him likeable, the film counters the prevailing cinematic narrative around sexual assault. So often, rape is seen as the sole province of obvious villains – scummy, evil characters with no redeeming qualities. The deliberate and unusual choice of making Jamie a sympathetic character is reflective of the reality of many sexual assaults. It isn’t just the demons hiding in the bushes, the monsters that telegraph their intentions from miles away. Rape is one decision away, and that decision can be made by anyone (don’t #notallmen me.) Mia’s story ends with a shot of her sobbing on her bed after he drops her off.
Like Brent’s, Mia’s story is not one of typical teenage rebellion. Near the end of the film, we discover that the mutilated young man that caused Brent’s car crash was her brother – missing and presumed dead, he was one of Lola’s prior victims. Mia’s deep depression about the loss of her brother is the driving force behind her drug and alcohol abuse – through substances and sex, she is seeking to mask this unspeakable pain. She is nearly silent throughout the film, unable to articulate or give voice to her anguish. Before revealing her pain and deep damage, the film invites us to judge her actions, rendering us complicit. Once we understand her motivations, we are invited to judge ourselves. I really appreciated the realistic and sensitive handling of her story.
The main plot also contains its fair share of interesting gender politics, although delivered far more playfully and explicitly than in Mia’s story. By far the most charismatic character in the film is Lola, who deftly dances with dizzying speed between soft-spoken whimsy and terrifying anger, with frequent stops at full-fledged insanity. The film subverts the usual horror film dichotomy of female captive and male captor – while Lola’s father (a particularly effective John Brumpton) does act as her muscle at several points throughout the film, she is obviously running the show. Brent spends much of the film tied up, taunted, and assaulted by Lola. She sexually humiliates him, undressing him without his consent and at one point forcing him to fellate her finger in a scene that recalls the rape sequence from the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave. In a particularly tense and brutal moment, she penetrates him with a power drill in a scene that would fit neatly into a Carol Clover gender analysis. (I love Clover but I’m not a Freudian, so won’t go so far as to call his eventual cellar prison womb-like.)
Speaking of psychoanalysis, Lola’s competitive jabs toward Bright Eyes, (Anne Scott-Pendlebury) her father’s … companion, for a lack of a better word, scream out Electra complex, but they also gesture (satirically, I think) toward the prevalence of film narratives which pit woman against one another as rivals for the affection of a man. This narrative bias is what makes films like The Craft (1996) and House (1997) so refreshing in their honest portrayal of positive female relationships (up until the witchcraft hits the fan, anyway), but I digress.
The Loved Ones is at times hard to watch and at other times impossible to look away from. If you have any sort of taste for the absurd (and a strong stomach), you will likely find it irresistible. Despite its failure to pass the Bechdel test (if I missed an exchange, let me know), I would still consider it to be a feminist film in a lot of ways, and an immensely entertaining one at that.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 paper crowns.
- Lola’s makeup and dress are so on point during her makeshift prom that I wanted to immediately Pin them – and I’m not even on Pinterest.
- The continually rotating disco ball in Lola’s house was mesmerizing – more horror films should have such festive sets!
- McLeavy’s riotously deranged delivery of “open up for the airplane” during the chicken scene is something that I could watch every day for the rest of my life and never tire of.
- Brumpton brought a lot of nuance and deft comic timing to his role – some really great and expressive face acting on his part.