The late and quite unlamented (by me, anyway) horror subgenre of torture porn was, if it was anything, aggressively unpleasant. Watching extended scenes of human having miseries realistically inflicted upon them without the sweet release of death would sort of have to be; this is the difference between the torture films and other gore-driven subgenres, such as the slashers, where the violence is fast and garish and goofy. They are, to a certain extent, merely gross - extremely gross, but merely gross.

Hence, I was completely unprepared for The Loved Ones, a 2009 torture film from Australia that came in the waning years of the cycle (I don't know exactly where to say it ended, but the release of Saw 3D in the last months of 2010 seems like a fair contender). It is not, I want to make very clear, a particularly deep or thoughtful piece of horror cinema, as such things go. You are unlikely to emerge from a screening with a new understanding of how human beings live and die in the world. You might conclude that writer-director Sean Byrne has what we might delicately call "A Thing" about women. But I think you'd come out of it good and rattled, and that's already more I can say for just about any of the other films on this model from that ignominious decade. These are not films looking to resonate, for the most part: they're looking to shock a viewer and overwhelm our synapses with visceral images of pain and mutilation. They work with a deliberate, weaponised crudeness, triggering disgust and discomfort more than any other emotion - at least, this has been my experience.

The Loved Ones is disgusting in its way, but unlike a Saw or a Hostel,* it's not histrionic about it. It's also relatively chaste about it - relatively. I want to make it very clear that this is not the film for you if you have an easily-turned stomach. But where the leading lights of the torture cycle were always thinking about the spectacle of violence, Byrne does not treat The Loved Ones primarily as a carnival freak show. He is elusive and elliptical in staging the violence scenes, often moving back to wider shots where a more dogged exploitation director would leer in for a loving, wet close-up, or cutting to a reaction shot for the bloodiest moments.

The effect of this is emphatically not to make the film seem like its pulling its punches. Aye, if you come into The Loved Ones looking solely for great big gobbets of stage blood and cow entrails, you will leave disappointed. But it absolutely doesn't feel safe or restrained. In fact, it feels considerably more potent than a more graphic film might. For it's kind of the nature of gore effects, don't you think, that they give us a chance to wriggle out of the movie a little bit. "Eww, that's cool!" or "Eww, that's gross!" or "Eww, that's immoral!"; these are all responses that remind us that we're watching a movie, and a make-up effects artist had labored mightily to make us feel so sympathetically revolted. The Loved Ones has very few "eww!" moments of this sort. It sort of does the thing where it gives us just enough to let our imaginations go hog wild: I am especially thinking of the showcase scene (implied on the posters), where the killer starts drilling through the main victim's skull; it's a big moment and the film knows it, playing it for jet-black laughs when the killer finds herself not quite up for the challenges of using a masonry bit (and it is, in fact, much harder to use a masonry bit than a normal drill bit), and really turning it into a big sardonic character beat for the psychos at the heart of the story. But what I am more thinking about right now is the tiny little detail that, as she drills - we're watching this from behind the victim's head, so we don't see any of the gory details, barely even any blood - a little plume of bone dust wafts up into the shaft of light trained on her and her drill. And that's just... aggressively realistic, in a viciously low-key way. And I'll tell you what, that little waft of dust latched onto the base of my spine way more than would have ever happened with the loving insert shot of gelatinous brain matter that an American film would undoubtedly placed here.

So that's one part of what we've got going with The Loved Ones: it's not letting us hoot and holler like blood-hungry savages, it's giving us just enough to be horribly upset and not enough to have catharsis. Actually, that's two parts, because I also touched on the bleak sense of humor. It's definitely not a funny film, but it has a detached, nihilistic flair for absurd touches, and it's not above going a little bit to the silly side of things. This also ends up making the brutality seem more brutal, since its not as monotonous as in a movie that doesn't know how to crack a smile.

I don't actually know if there's a third part. If The Loved Ones has an obvious problem, its that the characters aren't nearly as interesting to be around as the film seems to bank on. This is, to be fair, not a new problem for a horror film. Still, the film obviously really cares about it: the whole thing starts by heavily emphasisng how Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) is doing a terrible job of dealing with his grief. See, right at the start of the movie, he gets into a car accident that kills his father (Fred Whitlock): a blood-streaked, gaunt man appears in the middle of the road, and Brent only has enough time to steer sharply, wrecking the car. Six months later, he's a bundle of depression, understandably, and his preferred coping methods are marijuana, cutting himself, and desperately fucking his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine). This is where the problems start, because the awkward outcast Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) has worked up enough courage to ask him to the end-of-year dance, and since he's got a girlfriend, Brent declines - gently, but unmistakably. He then immediately goes to have car sex with Holly, and neither of them notice Lola watching them intently from just a few feet away.

The night of the dance, Brent is feeling especially depressed, and heads to an isolated spot to think about killing himself. Instead, he gets knocked out and kidnapped by Lola and her father Eric (John Brumpton), waking up to find himself tied to a chair at a pre-dance dinner with those two, and a woman (Anne Scott-Pendlebury), who is completely non-responsive. As it turns out, this is because Lola and Eric are quite enthusiastic about DIY lobotomies, and this is just one of the many things that Brent will learn firsthand as he finds himself Lola's date for a monstrous parody of a school dance held in the Stone house. There's some sexual humiliation, some physical torture, and then the discovery that all the other boys Lola has fancied are currently lobotomised cannibals living in the basement.

So far, so The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and not too many films do such a good job of earning that comparison. At its best, The Loved Ones is all about pure mortal dread, trapped and helpless and totally unable to predict what's coming next; it is a despairing film in much the same way that Tobe Hooper's masterpiece is, because of how thoroughly arbitrary it all feels. It's not nearly as good at making use of a thin dribble of a protagonist, largely because we get to know Brent too well for him to be so generic. Part of the issue, I think, is that he's so prickly and miserably standoffish; this is not the kind of depressed teen that makes you go "I feel so sorry for you, let's talk about it", but the kind that makes you go "I feel so sorry for you, please get the hell away from me". It's no poor reflection on Samuel, who plays the role just as Byrne needs him to, but Brent ends up being not worth the trouble it takes to learn about him.

That's a problem, but not a huge one. The huge problem is the subplot, in which Brent's buddy Jamie (Richard Wilson) takes a girl named Mia (Jessica McNamee) to the dance, and takes advantage of her own detachment. Once we learn more about Mia, it starts to feel like there's meant to be something in here comparing two forms of depression, and two ways that depressed people can be damaged by others, but the film hides important information that leads us in this direction until quite late, so mostly this plotline is just a bunch of erratic, confusing filler, something to cross-cut with the actual plot and make it unnecessarily hard to follow what the hell is going on. The film is a short little thing, 84 minutes in the unrated cut (I have a hard time spotting what would have necessitated those cuts, unless it's the fleshiness of the sex scenes), and that certainly doesn't reduce the impression that all of the Jamie/Mia material is just there to keep the film at something like a reasonable feature length.

Counterbalancing this at least a bit, is that the film does have, if not a good "character", then at least a hell of a good performance, in McLeavy's portrayal of Lola. It's nuanced in a weird way, with only shades of darkness: we are never, ever given a reason to feel sorry for Lola, but to see her psychopathy flower in unexpected new ways. She is delighted to have power in this house and over her captives that she lacks in her daily life as an invisible nobody at school; McLeavy plays the part as someone who experiences real joy and overflowing amusement, and this is an excellently terrifying thing. She overwhelms her two scene partners - Samuel is mostly reduced to angry moaning, and Brumpton is pointedly small and pathetic, making it clear that he has no other personality than being the indulgent father to his beloved princess, sharpening the film's overt incestuous overtones even before it gets made explicit. The scenes are handed to McLeavy on a platter, in other words, and she devours them with great élan, going big without ever going hammy. It's pretty impressive, actually, and it makes for an especially memorable, exciting, and terrifying villain.

With that kind of villain at the center, The Loved Ones turns into quite a special, overwhelming bit of pure wickedness. It does not have the veneer of cynicism that so many exploitation horror films do; its viciousness does not seem market tested. It is sincere in its merciless plumbing of the outer edges of human cruelty, anxious to make sure we have as deeply discomfiting an experience as Byrne can provide. This is one of the purposes of horror, after all: to force us into a confrontation with the truly, inexplicably evil. Many hyper-violent films are content just to trigger a gag reflex; few actually get at the survivalist panic beneath that disgust. I won't say that The Loved Ones does that consistently, but it does it enough, forcing enough reactions by deliberately feeding us tantalizing fragments of suffering that our lizard brains enthusiastically flesh out, that it has a genuine vicious power. I have seen more upsetting horror films, by a lot, but vanishingly few in this style of filmmaking or from this time period, and maybe it's just that I was unprepared for the movie, but The Loved Ones hit me right where I live, good and hard.

Body Count: 8, with twice as many perpetrated by the designated hero as by the designated villain, a fact the film does not seem to have thought about.

*Holy Moses, now there's a writing style you don't see me using anymore.