Set in Perth in 1987, Hounds of Love is a horror/crime story dealing with the abduction, torture and imprisonment of a young girl by a sadistic couple, John and Evelyn White. Vicki Maloney is taken from the street at random one night, and with no clue as to her whereabouts and in the face of an apathetic response from local law enforcement, her distraught family face an uphill battle to find her.
As Vicki is held captive within the small, yet tight confines of an inconspicuous suburban unit, she must try to play her volatile captors off against one another in the hope of buying herself precious time and locating a possible escape. John and Evelyn White are a dangerous mix. Tempers are short, motives are dark and the tension builds until breaking point is reached.
In his debut feature, Australian writer-director Ben Young delivers an intense and nervy viewing experience that is both very well made and brilliantly acted. It is a film simultaneously magnetic and repellent.
Aside from confident visuals and a tight storyline, Hounds of Love’s success rests heavily on some spectacular performances from the three leads. Stephen Curry and Emma Booth are perversely captivating as John and Evelyn White. Curry, in particular, is terrifying, and simmers with menace. The threat of violence is ever present. Emma Booth uses Evelyn’s complexity to tremendous effect. Part monster, part victim, we question her motivation throughout. Ashleigh Cummings is also superb as Vicki, subjected to her captor’s abuse while holding on to a steely inner strength and determination.
Hounds of Love borders on exploitation at times, but never fully tips over the edge. Although the movie has a voyeuristic quality, it ultimately never glorifies or lingers on the abuse meted out to Vicki. We’re shown only implements and blood spatter in lieu of action. In fact, much of what occurs does so behind closed doors and in the mind of the viewer, so that by the end we’re left with something a bit weightier as we consider the monstrous power dynamics at work. John abuses both Vicki and Evelyn. Evelyn abuses Vicki and her neighbour. Evelyn is intimidated by her ex-partner and John is bullied by a local thug. Everyone involved is on the receiving end of someone else’s temper.
Hounds of Love finds itself included in the sub-genre of horror where we, as an audience, are a party to the killers plans and motivations. Although usually reserved for more explicit genre fare such as Man Bites Dog, Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the audience here is still along for the ride and things naturally become uncomfortable when we spend so much time in the presence of ugliness. But for true comparison’s sake, Hounds of Love has most in common with Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown. Both have an accomplished and visually impressive style that butts heads with a grubby and unsettling subject matter.
The average, workaday suburban setting makes things just that little bit nastier, implanting the idea that these acts of abject horror are occurring in the bathrooms and spare rooms of houses just like the ones on your street. Like the best exponents of the genre, contrasting brutality against the mundane enhances its impact significantly.
There’s something jarring about ‘enjoying’ a film so unpleasant, but Hounds of Love achieves it. While it is unlikely to be an experience many will want to repeat, it is a worthwhile experience nonetheless. Hounds of Love is a confidently intense Australian horror movie that will reward audiences with the constitution for it.