Starring: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry
Director: Ben Young
Running Time: 108 mins
Synopsis: 1987, Perth, Australia. Couple Evelyn and John roam the streets seeking out young vulnerable girls to kidnap, torture then eventually murder. Their next victim is Vicki (Cummings), but once chained within the couple’s domestic prison she begins to manipulate the situation and drive a wedge between the killer lovers.
Hounds of Love is not an easy film to watch. It is not neutered down. And it certainly does not hesitate to challenge its audience. However contrary to what that synopsis may say to you, Hounds of Love is not unremittingly bleak. Films such as these that deal with heavy adult subject matter can be frequently suffocating, unable to show restraint in favour of milking their tough material for all its worth. Hounds joins other such recent Australian thrillers Animal Kingdom and Snowtown in showcasing formidable fierce storylines executed with directorial panache. This time out it is another first time writer/director Ben Young commanding the film with confidence and no small shred of artistry.
Immediately we are cast into the uncomfortable position of being voyeurs. Young’s camera motioning its way through a teenage girls game of netball, slowly and with a particular focus on legs, chests and arms as they sweat. It is a chilling opening for we know this voyeurism is conveying the hungry eyes of killer couple Evelyn and John, as they determine which of these innocent young girls will be next to enter their room of horror. We see them lure in one such girl with pleasantries and the offer of assistance, before a dovetail into what comes next. Muffled screams, bloodied tissues and rope twisting is all we see, and is all we need to see. Young proving almost immediately that he does not have the desire to explicitly and openly show the horrors that occur, shrewd enough to realise that true power comes from what we can only imagine is happening. Before long a girl is dead, a car stalks the lyrically beautiful forest road to find a secluded burial place, and time moves on. This prologue, as it were, is economical, brooding and mightily effective. Telling us all we need to know about this monstrous couple in a few simple scenes, little details such as the tears Evelyn sheds as she listens to her lover murder their victims clueing us into a character aspect that pulls sharper into focus as the film progresses.
Their next victim, though, proves to challenge the very heart of this couples warped relationship. Vicki is portrayed as a usual teenager, stroppy, stubborn and prone to making silly rash decisions. Her temperament is not helped by the recent divorce her parents have gone through. Siding with her father as her mother, Susie Porter giving a strong maternal performance, decided to leave him, leaving Vicki feeling unwanted and alone. There is comfort from her loving boyfriend Jason, the pair playfully affectionate together even as his desire to consummate the relationship causes tension, and making the abuse Vicki will suffer later feel even crueller, a virgin girl facing sex as a torture device. After sneaking out to visit a local party she makes the unfortunate decision to get into a car containing two outwardly charming but inwardly monstrous people. The tension from this moment is unbearable, Young stretching out Evelyn and John’s kidnapping from gentle neighbourly kindness (an offer of a drink and some cheap weed) to ever more malicious intent. Ashleigh Cummings is terrific as Vicki, making her slightly cliched teenager feel believable and in the films more harrowing moments conveying a strength that comes out in unexpected ways. Like all teenagers she is adept at manipulating those around her to get what she wants, but in this case what she desires is not materialistic or trivial just the will to survive.
Fortunately, well as fortunate as you can be in this sort of situation, Vicki’s captors are dealing with severe issues of their own. In an inspired move Young has decided to turn this full-on serial killer drama into a treatise on relationships, specifically abusive ones. The driver of this sexually murderous rampage is clearly John, and Stephen Curry gives a performance that is terrifying, unpredictable and utterly engrossing. A wiry skinny man but one capable of primal bouts of fierce physical strength, Curry’s performance is all the more incredible when you realise his stock trade is being a comedian. But here joining the likes of Robin Williams in funny men turning in malevolently potent performances. Like all violent men, John is a weak cowardly male, prone to bouts of loving affection for Evelyn in between the scuzzy sex and emotional manipulation. It isn’t a particularly original character choice but Young captures it with efficiency in one very telling scene as John is confronted by a local loan shark suffering bullying usually seen on the playground than on the streets. This is all we need to see to understand John’s emasculating frustrations, Young confident enough that we need no more information to not really sympathise with the man but at least get him.
Young’s focus is predominately on Evelyn. A wounded beaten woman, having lost her kids to her ex after taking up with John. She yearns to have them back, but also cannot bear to lose John in the process. Emma Booth is astounding here, full of barely contained rage and complex contradictions. She shows almost a compassion at times for her captive, bathing her, serving her food and feeling sickened at what she has done to this poor girl. But on a dime she can be spiteful, violent and hideous, especially when Vicki teases her about John’s true nature. Evelyn’s constant begging of John to kill Vicki is less indicative of a murderous intent than a desire to trample down that voice of reason telling her that John is nothing more than a selfish monster. It is a captivating interplay, and gives Hounds a far stronger power than I expected.
A power that is mined with a careful deliberate restraint from Young. As mentioned he can convey so much from mere glimpses, whether in the horror of scummy sex toys, the domesticated normalcy of a morning breakfast or the potent images of children’s playthings as a reminder of the children Evelyn lost and the innocence taken from Vicki. Music and sound are used to great effect, an almost 80s style electronic score (this is set in 1987 so that may explain the choice) is a hauntingly aural prowler around this house of terrors. Young also masterfully controls sound to exacerbate the tension, with one scene of Vicki screams reaching almost deafening levels as the door closes shut sealing off the screams and the three of them into a night of pain. We do not need to see Vicki’s attacks, and outside of one brief shattering moment Young wisely avoids them. This film deserves to see him hit the spotlight, displaying more artistry, confidence and sheer directorial balls than his more experienced brethren.
In fact beyond a third act lapse into slight plot contrivance (how Vicki’s mother is led onto the trail of her daughter is closer to a brash thriller novel than the realism this strives for) there is little here to dent Young’s debut film. Some will inevitably find the subject matter overwhelming by its very nature, but it never hits you over the head, beating you down into the misery. Hounds simply seeks to tackle the darkness at the heart of relationships, and at the heart of man. How love can make animals of us all!!
Verdict: Hounds of Love is primal savagely full on cinema, the artistry of the execution turning it into something suffocatingly engrossing. Warning though-dog lovers should stay away.