‘You’ve got ten seconds to go, or Daddy’s gonna nail it to the chair.’
Though it is, at heart, another tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured film, this Australian debut from writer-director Sean Byrne manages to ring the changes on an overworked form. Its tone is more Stephan Elliott (in Frauds or Welcome to Woop-Woop mode) than Eli Roth, but it also has a focused, thought-through storyline which repays close attention. It’s especially heartening that the material which is usually filler – comic relief teen hijinx, the police investigation, secondary characters catching on to what’s wrong, angsty family tragedy set-up – is all tied intimately to the central situation, and considerably deepens the black comic ordeal.
In a prologue, long-haired teenager Brent (Xavier Samuel) is bantering with his Dad while driving home when a bloody figure shows up in the middle of the road – Brent loses control of the car, and his father dies in the crash. Months later, Brent is withdrawn, given to cutting himself and unable to outright tell his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) that he loves her, and his mum is haggard, overconcerned about him being in cars and jittery about his attending the end of school dance. In the school hallway, Brent banters with his more outgoing pal Sac (Richard Wilson), who is delighted to score a date with sullen but gorgeous goth chick Mia (Jessica McNamee), and perturbed when wallflower Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) asks him to take her to the dance. Later, while climbing – he clearly seeks out dangerous situations from guilt over his father’s death – he is bagged and taken off by Eric (John Brumpton), who turns out to be Lola’s loving, disturbed father.
Brent is tied to a chair (of course) in the isolated Stone house, which has balloons and party lights, while Lola appears in a pink dress, expressing a manic glee that tips off early that she’s gone beyond playing with barbie dolls and dreaming of perfect romance to persuading her father to kidnap hot guys from school so they can be transformed into her dates by a power-drill lobotomy (only a prelude to the real brain-boiling process, which involves a kettle of hot water). Eric already has ‘Bright Eyes’, a lolling zombie woman (it’s not really a revelation that she’s Lola’s mother, but an afterthought), around, and the cellar turns out to be stocked with a few other failed attempts at ‘loved ones’ (Lola has a scrapbook all about them, and chatters callously about their fates). Brent is pinned to the floor by knives through his feet, drugged and dressed up formally, has a love-heart carved on his chest with a fork, and wisely keeps quiet through the long night as the psychos do all the spieling.
Meanwhile, Mia is glumly sexual with Sac and goes home to sob in bed: her brother was a previous victim, the guy in the prologue who caused the accident, and we see that his suffering and the consequent death of Brent’s Dad has radiated throughout the town, warping the characters of the bereaved and causing lasting damage which will only get worse after this evening (Mia’s dad is the local cop – and he dies during the film). Lola and Eric are colourfully demented, in their own twisted storybook world – with hints of incestuous longing, as Eric looks at his daughter getting into her prom dress and she goes through boys who will never love her as much as her father does. The business about lobotomising partners into becoming living sex dolls seems to come from a fantasy of Jeffrey Dahmer’s – he probably became a serial killer because he couldn’t get this process to work. By now, the current cycle of BTK horrors has thrown up too many restraint situations, mad tea parties, sawn-through ropes (Brent has his cutting razorblade as a necklet), gruesomely permanent assaults (the drilling is especially painful, with a first try skittering off Brent’s forehead because the girl doesn’t put her weight behind it), casual humiliations (Brent has to pee in a glass) and captives-overcoming-captors (Eric’s fate goes back to Dr Moreau’s), but Byrne does all these things better than we’ve seen recently. It’s not a complete downer, and the last-reel heroics even manage to hinge quite affectingly on the way Brent’s ordeal has opened him up emotionally (he really values the loyal Holly, who Lola is out to get) and still deliver a wide-open-spaces climactic face-off (all great Aussie exploitation films get on the road eventually) with a satisfying punchline splat.