Love, guts, and glory

SFIFF: Sean Byrne dishes on his sleeper-hit slasher

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arts@sfbg.com

SFIFF Though there were far starrier, more expensive films debuting in the Midnight Madness section of last year's Toronto Film Festival, the category's prize and foot-stomping audience favor was stolen by a low-budget Australian film that arrived with no fanfare, no name actors, and a writer-director who'd made no prior features.

Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones focuses on small-town teenager Brent (Xavier Samuel), who's severely depressed from a recent tragedy but rouses himself to attend the school prom — or would have, if he wasn't hijacked instead for one of the most harrowing first dates in film history.

Pegged by some as "Misery meets Pretty in Pink," this instant horror mini-classic is by turns poignant, funny, grotesque, alarming, and finally very, very satisfying. It's sure to be a hit again in the San Francisco International Film Festival's Late Show section. Between festival travels, Byrne was back home in Melbourne when he answered my e-mail queries.

SFBG The movie really throws you for a loop by spending the first stretch on serious psychological drama, then springing something entirely different.

Sean Byrne Well, I needed [to establish] a hero who was uniquely qualified to survive hell. Someone who is conditioned to pain, who feels like they deserve to suffer. He's a cutter or self-mutilator, someone who tries to block out emotional pain with physical pain. He's a kid with a death wish who's forced to endure a literal hell, and in the process realizes he's got everything to live for.

SFBG Your central female character is more interesting than the usual horror movie villains in that she's so spoiled she thinks she's a victim, which then excuses her behaving monstrously. Where did that come from?

SB I was thinking about what could make a signature, iconic, highly marketable villain and I noticed how my five-year-old niece, along with almost every little girl, is obsessed with wearing pink. It's part of the magic and fantasy stage of childhood, where they actually believe the Disney line "someday [my] prince will come." So then I started thinking, well, what if our villain is a teenager with raging hormones but still somehow stuck in this spoiled, childish, preoperational stage of development. I imagined "Princess" as a teenage version of that irritating kid in the supermarket who demands lollies and won't stop screaming until she gets them.

SFBG I like that her favorite song is self-pity anthem "Not Pretty Enough." Has Kasey Chambers had any reaction to the film?

SB I tried to stay within the horror genre but at the same time subvert the conventions. And having our troubled hero listen to heavy metal (the "devil's music") and our villain listen to a top-of-the-pops ballad like "Not Pretty Enough" was a way of doing that. As far as I know, Kasey hasn't seen the film. I'm dying to know how she'll react.

SFBG A difference between this movie and those associated with "torture porn" is that here both the victims and the perps are pretty complicated characters.

SB I hope so. I did my research and tried to get inside the heads of these characters before I started writing. Characters in horror movies are often one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. But really great ones like The Shining (1980), The Exorcist (1973), and Rosemary's Baby (1968) delve into the psychology of the moment. They answer the question: how do ordinary people react to extraordinary situations honestly? They explore our base instincts with emotional authenticity.

SFBG The film really does dish out some horrifying abuse, though — did you ever pull back on how graphic it would be?

SB No. Never. I'm not a fan of PG-13 horror.

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