Pegged by some as "Misery meets Pretty in Pink," Sean Byrne’s 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 email queries.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: 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 villainness 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, pre-operational 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: Did any particular films inspire you, in general or in making this film in particular?
SB: My filmic influences were a real mash up. Structurally the film is closest to Misery (1990) but tonally there are shades of Carrie (1976), Dazed and Confused (1993), Footloose (1984), The Terminator (1984), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 original), The Evil Dead (1981), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), [and the works of directors] David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, John Hughes, and even Walt Disney. The way Tarantino juxtaposes violence and comedy was a big influence. I’m also a huge David Fincher and P.T. Anderson fan. Audiences may recognize some of the influences but hopefully the film, as a whole, will be a fresh experience.
SFBG: A difference between this movie and those associated with "torture porn" is that here both victims and 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.
I’ve made a horror movie, so I don’t want to sound hypocritical, but in my opinion movies that focus on the stalking bogeyman are actually kind of immoral because as an audience we’re almost forced to barrack for the killer. We know they won’t die (because there’s always a sequel) and we know nothing about the people being hunted and what makes them tick. So the main point of interest becomes, how much bare flesh am I going to see and how inventively gruesome is the next kill going to be? To me that’s not real horror. Real horror is having a relationship with the dark, extreme side of human nature and getting inside the cruelest of minds then genuinely caring about the people who are trapped in this terrifying web.
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. The middle ground is pretty boring -- that's why it's called the middle ground. But we’re a balls-to-the wall pop-horror movie and as a fan growing up loving horror movies, I know what I like and I think I know what other true horror fans like, and we like to be pushed. Audiences go to horror movies to be scared. The brief is to freak them out so why hold back?
SFBG: Did anyone suggest you take out the whole comedy subplot involving the best friend's dream date with the school's goth chick? Although it works -- both on its own and to provide some relief from the main action, which might be unbearable to watch without some interruption.
SB: The first draft of the screenplay was basically confined to the farmhouse, where most of the horror plays out, but it began to feel a bit suffocating. Like Misery, The Loved Ones is a kind of claustrophobic horror and also like Misery, which cuts to the sheriff and his wife for light relief, there are moments when the audience needs to take a breath, wipe their sweaty palms and maybe even have a nervous chuckle before preparing for the next white-knuckle onslaught.
SFBG: It's a good thing your lead actress has already done some other, very different things, since otherwise she might be typecast forever as the horror-movie Girl from Hell.
SB: Yes, Robin McLeavy is an incredibly well-respected theater actress. She recently played Stella opposite Cate Blanchett’s Blanche in Liv Ullmann’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and won a Hayes Award for her performance, which is Washington’s answer to the Tonys.
SFBG: Upcoming projects? Have you gotten any overtures from major studios/producers?
SB: I’m writing a home invasion thriller with a unique twist, am attached to a medical thriller, which is a modern reworking of the Jekyll and Hyde story, and I’m in discussions with major studios and producers about a couple of other projects that I’d better keep quiet about for now.