by GREG KING
“The Loved Ones has its own irreverent sensibility and total Australian wild streak,” enthuses writer/director Sean Byrne about his debut feature film. “This is the kind of film that I wanted to watch as a young guy in Australia.”
The Loved Ones is a grisly and depraved horror film from a director who obviously understands and appreciated the tropes of the genre – hormonal adolescents, dark and disturbing secrets beneath the surface of a sleepy small town, and a demented serial killer at large. When Brent (Xavier Samuel) rebuffs an invitation to the prom from Lola, the quiet weird girl at school, he finds himself in trouble. Lola (aka Princess) doesn’t take rejection lightly. With the help of her father, the demented Lola kidnaps Brent, takes him to their isolated farm house, and subjects him to her own perverted version of the rituals of the prom – including a bit of torture and do-it-yourself lobotomy with a power drill. It’s Pretty In Pink meets Hostel.
The son of a film critic, Byrne grew up in Tasmania, and was constantly surrounded by videos and DVDs. “I virtually grew up surrounded by film, and I think subconsciously I was versed in film language.” He admits that The Loved Ones is something of a cross between Carrie, The Evil Dead and Misery, which the film very closely resembles in terms of structure.
Byrne first studied law at the University of Tasmania. But before doing his articles he decided to follow his passion for film and enrolled in a course on media production at college. “I had no idea what I was doing. I just made some zero budget short films with family and friends, reasonably inexpensive equipment, and just put a show reel together. Even though the production values were probably quite amateurish, I think the content stood out.”
One of his short films was a black comedy about a policeman who was into bestiality. “I think that stood out amongst a sea of art-driven films,” he jokes. Nonetheless, that reel was enough to get him accepted into the National Film Television and Radio School, where he studied film for the next couple of years. “I was like a kid in a candy store. The government paid you to make films every year! I came out of AFTRS with a really good show reel, some kind of profile and an understanding of the craft. It will take me the rest of my life to totally understand it.”
Byrne has always been a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, and Peter Jackson’s early stuff like Brain Dead. Horror is such a great platform for really inventive directors to show off their style. Even directors like Spielberg and Coppola started out with low budget horror films – Spielberg with Duel, and Coppola with Dementia 13. “I thought I’m going to make a horror film because that’s what the market is demanding. As a first time filmmaker with no runs on the board it’s difficult to get a project off the ground because you’re not going to get a lot of money.”
To create the unsettling characters of the psychopathic Princess and Daddy, Byrne researched serial killers, particularly Ed Gein (who was the inspiration behind characters in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer. “The most important thing I learned about serial killers is they’re not wildly charismatic characters like we usually see in films. For the most part these people slip through the cracks and they keep doing what they do for fifteen years or so, and they usually get caught because they want to get caught. They exist on the periphery of society, it’s like they’ve had their conscience ripped out, and they don’t have the ability to feel or empathise. So to actually to feel alive they need to be confronted with something that’s incredibly extreme. I was just trying to understand how cruelty was thought of as fun.”
Byrne went through a traditional casting process, although he had written detailed character briefs for each of the characters. “I’ve always been a huge fan of John Brumpton,” he explains. “I think he’s one of Australia’s finest character actors. He came in, and he got the fact that he’s playing the man and not the monster, that really quietly demented portrayal rather than that whole googly-eyed, clichéd monster. Because Princess and Daddy work as a team, I thought they had to have personalities that would balance each other out. Daddy is happy to be in the background. He’s quietly demented and you don’t really know what’s going on in his head. Sometimes, not knowing what is going on in someone’s head is far scarier than overwrought emotion.”
Byrne recalls seeing Samuel in the Australian coming of age film September, and was impressed by his strong, internal performance, which was important for The Loved Ones, as the lead was going to be tied to a chair for most of the film. “He has to communicate his entire story arc through his eyes,” Byrne says. “He goes from being shocked and scared and disoriented at being put in this nightmarish scenario to being really defiant, to being a broken man, to then somehow finding that primal animal within, and all without really talking. I was really excited to get someone who could portray that internal conflict.”
Made for just $4 million, The Loved Ones premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2009, and has since become a bit of a darling on the festival circuit. The film won the People’s Choice Midnight Madness award at Toronto, beating out big budget studio fare like Jennifer’s Body and Daybreakers. “We were the total dark horse of the festival, and no-one knew we existed,” Byrne confesses. “That was a really great thrill, because Toronto Film Festival audiences are very film literate. That was a great endorsement!
“I’ve watched it play around the world, and it’s so exciting. People laugh, they scream, they peek between their fingers, girls hide between their boyfriend’s shoulders, some people talk at the screen. One guy I saw actually pumped his fist at the screen, which is absolutely great! It’s designed as an audience film, an absolutely demented, fun-filled roller coaster.
“The Loved Ones was made for an Australian audience,” Byrne goes on. “This is the kind of film I wanted to watch as a young guy in Australia. It gives young audiences what they want – they get to see themselves on screen, in cool clothes, driving cool cars, in an American slick-looking production, but it has its own irreverent sensibility and total Australian wild streak. Which is what I loved so much about Mad Max. Those films we made in the ‘70s and ‘80s really captured that real Colonial madness.
“There’s been a lot of quiet bleak kitchen sink dramas that are very layered, and very well made, but I honestly think that for 90% of the audience, film is about escapism. If we’re going to compete with these $100 million plus American films, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded about the dirt under the fingernails, or the hardships of life that everyone is going through.”
The Loved Ones opens nationally on November 4. –