Tone, Themes, and The Loved Ones (2009)

The Loved Ones is a fantastic little Aussie horror film that rarely puts a foot wrong. It tells the story of a demented girl named Lola who kidnaps her high-school crush, Brent, on the night of the school dance, and subjects him to her own twisted version of a dance at her home – including but not limited to having his feet nailed to the ground, his chest carved with a grim version of schoolgirl doodling, and a DIY lobotomy with a drill and some boiling water.

It’s a full on horror film at times, showing that unlike the current slate of inferior Gorn films, a little restraint to the horrific violence makes it all the more effective. The film is bloody and intense, but, because of the scarcity and control of visceral, bloody violence, it’s also very palatable.

It’s also a black comedy – and there are moments where you will find yourself wanting to laugh and cringe at the same time, kind of like the comedic version of simultaneously coughing and sneezing: all kinds of discombobulating frenzy.

The film is rated MA15+, with the consumer advice, “Strong horror violence, strong themes.” But it was initially marked with an R18+ for “High Impact Violence,” a rating I consider much more appropriate for the film. The rating was lessened to the MA15+ when the review board took into account the comedic elements of the film, which supposedly lessen the impact of the violence.

Now if Australia wants to continue making great films, I’m all for it. I’m also aware that an MA15+ rating opens up the opportunity for more revenue in an industry that is already dwindling – Aussie films rarely make money, and restricting a film with an R18+ shuts off three years of potential cinemagoers, but the issue here is that the OFLC have always maintained that the ratings system is predominantly meant to inform viewers of the content of the film, and specifically allow parents to make judgements for their children. Now don’t misconstrue the following criticism as reflecting on the movie, it’s quite the opposite in fact, but I don’t think this film would be appropriate for most 15 year olds. In saying that, I feel a lot of films that get rated MA15+ by the OFLC are actually pretty appropriate for ages much younger than 15 – The Ring, for instance, which is only a PG-13 in America – but The Loved Ones is not.

My issue with the rating is not that it’s MA15+, but that it’s been lessened from the R18+ by the film’s “comedic elements.” It’s a black comedy. One of the appeals of black comedy is that the humour is usually subtle, and in this case, The Loved Ones doesn’t disappoint, which brings me to my point.

The violence is easily measurable. The subtle humour that goes alongside it is not.  This is only problematic because the initial R18+ rating has been softened due to the (theoretically) mitigating factors of the comedy. Now, don’t get me wrong – the film is funny – but the humour is inextricable from what is, at times, incredibly vicious viewing matter. It would be like Pulp Fiction being lowered to a softer rating because Marvin getting shot in the face, or the immediate aftermath of Mia Wallace’s needle-through-the-heart moment also happen to be funny; they are, but they’re still very safely placed in the R18+.

I’m completely in favour of the rating categories – they help immediately define the suitability of a film for different age groups, and this is a good thing (except for that pesky RC). But it’s not necessarily a good thing when the censors are allowed to judge a film on an extremely subjective element, such as the tone of the film. More of a problem is the fact that tonal elements of a film are very rarely consistently rated.

Probably the most erroneous example I can think of is Kill Bill Vol. 1 in contrast with Passion of the Christ. The former is given an R18+, while the latter is given an MA15+. I’m going to avoid the soapbox that would allow me to point out that our nation is still ruled by the conservative values that would overlook extreme violence in a religious film, and just point out that The Passion of the Christ is a prime candidate for an R18+. Why? Because of the tone. It’s all about the suffering of Jesus, the torment and anguish he’s going through before his equally torturous death. There’s nothing to mitigate it. There’s no comic relief (unless, like me, you found the androgynous Satan a little chuckle-worthy) and it’s a full on assault to watch. On the other hand, the violence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is incredibly light-hearted, ludicrously comical, and a hell of a lot more palatable to watch then Passion of the Christ.

But what happened here? The censors deemed Passion of the Christ to have more artistic merit, which deems it a more “serious” film, which softens the restrictions on the film. Kill Bill on the other hand, joyous romp that it is, doesn’t make you want to bleed your senses when you finish watching it, so it gets deemed less meritorious, less serious, and as such gets sheltered away from the prying eyes of 15-17 year olds, leaving them the option of watching chunks of Jim Caviezel’s back get torn from his spine. Delightful.

I’m not saying that the tone of a film is a myth. The complicated struggle I fight with myself over my respect or lack thereof for A Serbian Film, in contrast with Salo comes down to the tone. Both are vile and reprehensible films, but the actual measurable content in A Serbian Film is much more extreme than that in Salo, yet one is a much easier to watch. A Serbian Film knocked me for six, and it it has buckets more blood featured than Salo, but Salo is the worst, lowest point I have ever felt in my life, and that’s thanks to the tone of the film.

But others will disagree. I’ve had people try to defend Salo to me before, as art, as “not that bad”, as Euroshlock which I shouldn’t let affect me, and while I vehemently disagree, it’s clear that it didn’t affect them the same way. Tone is subjective. We still get films classified with “Adult Themes” but what does that tell us, really? It means that there’s elements and material within the film that might be inappropriate for some viewers. It implies that there’s a tonal weight to the film that must be borne. That’s fine, but we don’t rate films on other subjective elements.

There’s no “High Level Really Scary Scenes” for horror films, there’s no “Strong Level Sad Moments” for heart-wrenching dramas. There’s no discernible way to (or real need for) measuring such things, but The Loved Ones doesn’t tell us it has “Strong horror violence, medium level comedy to offset the previous rating” it just tells us about the violence, and watching the film, that’s what will hit you the most. While I laughed my way through The Loved Ones, and cringed and squirmed when I was meant to, I never found the violence any less horrific because it was funny violence. It doesn’t make you not feel tender in your feet during the “this is for the Kingswood” line, just because you laugh as well.

The point is, this is a film that a lot of 15-year-olds would be horrified by, and perhaps it should be kept from them until they’re 18. They might laugh a bit, but they’re still going to be presented with the same visceral violence. The censors need to figure out a way of being able to inform, judge, measure or classify tonal elements of a film (and I have no idea how to do it, I’m bitching without any useful suggestions) or simply not allow subjective elements to weigh in on their decisions, or at the very least, be consistent in their judgements on tone.

But despite that, I’m glad it’s MA15+ and thusly available to a wider audience, because it’s a great film that deserves your viewing. But when you start laughing and wincing at the same time, ask yourself if your laughter makes a difference to how horrified you are.


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