Shallow Graves: The Loved Ones, or How We Need to Resolve to Not Say ‘Torture Porn’ This New Year

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The Loved Ones (2009)

Directed by: Sean Byrne

The sub-genre Torture Porn came in to style like a wave in the middle of the 20-aughts, carrying new inventions in gratuity, or so it’s often suggested, but to be honest I don’t know what a Torture Porn film exactly is. There were a lot of films made between 2001 and 2009 that experimented pretty heavily in graphic gore, similar to the 80’s when film makers tested the limits of gore and trash. True to film’s cyclical nature gore, and in some cases, trash, were reinvented in the decade following 9-11, and like the 80’s, a lot of movies from the period ended up being empty practices in gratuity. But the term ‘Torture Porn’ feels reductive of the movies that are starting to separate from the rest of the wave, films like The Loved Ones.

Sean Byrne’s film is about Brent (Xavier Samuel) a desperately alone teenaged kid dealing with the pain of not only losing his father in a peculiar car accident, but also with the pain of being made to feel he was responsible by his cold, emotionally distant mother. Even his girlfriend, whom he loves, seems unable to understand exactly what he’s going through. On the night of the big dance, a night Brent’s mother is particularly accusatory; he goes out into the woods to a nearby cliff wall. After climbing the wall in a dangerous flirtation with suicide he’s kidnapped and ends up in full tuxedo, tied to a chair, in the kitchen of a classmate. The classmate is the shy awkward girl, Lola, who had sheepishly asked him to the dance earlier that day and been turned down.

The quiet Lola, played brilliantly by Robin McLeavy, has transformed into a clenched fist of violent psychosis, conducting her brutal torture of Brent. She keeps her weasely father (John Brumpton) tethered to her every want in an absurdly creepy play on daddy issues. Lola is living out a sadistic fantasy of high school romance with Brent, complete with glitter and crowns. You can write an entire college thesis on the psychology of Lola, there are layers upon layers of her menace, beyond the smirking satire of the beauty and behavioral expectations heaped upon young girls.

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There are easy comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are they’re apt, both have a dark sadistic sense of humor, and both center themselves around a darkly satirical family, but The Loved Ones drifts away from TCM and finds its own tone. Where the dinner scene in TCM lingers like the smell of something that’s died in a wall of a house (in a good way) The Loved Ones, though reveling in its gore and torture, feels more like an odd, glittering nightmare. The gore and torture is somewhat at a distance and feels a little absurd compared to the delirious screams and wild eyes of Marilyn Burns in the dinner scene in TCM.

It could be that we’re more intimate with Brent, making for an obvious metaphor for his personal struggle in Lola’s torture. Watching the metaphor play out makes one feel a little safer during the brutal scenes, there is comfort knowing the story will have a beginning, middle, and end, whereas TCM is more focused on the visceral horror of the twisted family terrorizing its unsuspecting victims, there are no rules, anything can happen.

Running parallel to Brent and Lola’s night is Jamie (Richard Nelson) and Mia’s (Jessica McNamee) date to the school dance. Jamie and Mia mirror Lola and Brent, particularly Mia with Brent, both are victims of loss, and have checked out emotionally. Jamie nervously and innocently attempts to illicit some emotional response from Mia while Mia does her best to resist. It’s a break of levity that keeps the film grounded and prevents it from indulging to heavily in the bloody act between Lola and Brent.

See also:

The Last House on The Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)

-James Merolla

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