Sneaking out of her mother’s house to go to a party, a teenage girl, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is kidnapped by a couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth), intent on rape and murder, and imprisoned in their suburban home. She is not their first victim. Vicki soon realises that her only hope of escape is to drive a wedge between the sadistic, predatory John and the volatile, emotionally fragile Evelyn. However, her attempts to do so may just see her headed for a shallow bush grave earlier than planned.
Perth director Ben Young’s feature debut is relatively straight forward in terms of plot, but it lives in the details. Hounds of Love is a closely observed examination of the banality of evil and the transactional nature of relationships – even relationships rooted in rape and abuse. Young, who also wrote the screenplay, builds up his mundane suburban milieu layer by layer, letting the tacky ephemera of mid-’80s Australia do the heavy lifting in defining a humdrum, beat down world of sleepy, sun-beaten streets, thong-wearing petty criminals, scorched lawns and semi-feral neighbourhood dogs. It’s behind the scenes where the real horrors happen, though.
“Horror” being a charged term. Hounds of Love deals with some undeniably horrific subject matter, but its approach is careful and deliberate, implying more than showing. Cinematographer Michael McDermott’s command of the frame is exemplary, turning the Whites’ suburban house – only a handful of rooms behind security locks and plywood-covered windows – into a foreboding prison. There is gore at times, yes, but far more affecting is the ever-presence possibility of violence, to the point where, when it does erupt, it’s almost a relief.
What we focus on then, is the character dynamics, as we try to predict how the tensions between the three principals will exhibit themselves, and who has the power in any given exchange. Young’s handling of this is deft; his background in music videos pretty much assured we’d get a good-looking film out of him, but his handling of the cast and the character relationships is really impressive. Stephen Curry, usually seen in much lighter fare, is mesmerising as the menacing John, enacting terrible power fantasies in his suburban castle to compensate for his inadequacies and lack of power in the real world, while Ashleigh Cummings gives an incredibly courageous performance as a child of privilege who must find hidden strengths to carry herself through her ordeal.
Emma Booth is the real standout here, though, embodying a woman who is both abuser and abused, conditioned by literally decades of subjugation into being an accomplice to atrocity. It’s the tragedy of her situation that elevates Hounds of Love above your more rote “everyday horror” fare; we see her desires for some kind of normal, nurturing life, but its forever beyond her reach because of the nature of her relationship with John. she’s repulsive, to be sure – a rapist, a murderer, complicit in, if not guilty of, torture and depravity – but there’s a humanity in her that’s capable of eliciting empathy, which makes for some very uncomfortable and conflicting viewing.
Surely it goes without saying that this film is not for everyone? Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to label Hounds of Love as a simple exercise in boundary-pushing for its own sake. This is an intelligent piece of grounded horror, and an outstanding debut film.