A deranged couple with a desire to kill, a teenage girl with a will to live.
A twisted relationship between a man and his wife sits at the center of writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut, but it’s the more innocent one between a teenager and her mother that viewers will hope prevails as the harrowing and unsettling Hounds of Love heads towards its conclusion.
It’s the late ’80s and Christmastime in Perth, Western Australia, and Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is enduring a common right of passage for teenagers the world over. Her parents have split, but while her dad tries to retain her affection with the gift of a new puppy, her mom (Susie Porter) is trying to establish ground rules. Vicki scoffs at her restrictions though and instead sneaks out into the night for a party, but along the way she has the misfortune of crossing paths with Evelyne (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry).
We’ve already watched the couple clean up bloodied tissues and sex “toys” from the floor of a sparsely decorated bedroom and then bury the girl who had recently been their captive, so we know their intentions with Vicki are no different. One drugged beverage later and the teen is tied to the bed and left to be victimized by the deranged pair. Her only hope sits in her observations of the couple – John’s an obsessive, abusive narcissist, while Evie’s emotionally weak and incapable of seeing herself without him.
Hounds of Love is a wonderfully-acted dark drama that eschews both typical genre thrills and the extremes of onscreen torture. It’s suspenseful, particularly during its nail-biting third act (even if it does borrow a memorable trick from a significant Hollywood thriller), but it finds real strength in the journeys of its two main female characters.
Young wisely focuses our sympathies with the film’s real victim, Vicki, but he allows time to be spent with the couple as well in order to explore their relationship. Brief glimpses of John outside the home reveal a man who’s powerless and easily put in his place by others, and the belittling fuels his power trip inside the house that sees him abuse Evie physically, emotionally, and even at times with a little bit of gas-lighting. Both are villains, with John being the main aggressor, but Evie’s villainy is a multi-layered affair. There’s a risk that some viewers may see Evie as far more of a victim than she actually is, but the film never veers anywhere near excusing her behavior. We’re given a contrast in Vicki’s mom as another woman paired with an overbearing man – but one who found the strength to walk away from him.
Booth’s performance beautifully and painfully captures the woman’s own torment – we’re shown hints of what she’s lost in years past, but it’s Booth’s portrayal of a lost woman struggling between what her head knows and her heart wants that forces viewers to see the person behind the monster. Sorrow, rage, affection, and agony wash across her face in endless waves with each new tidal change wiping away more of her resolve. The film avoids showing viewers any of the rough stuff – violations are implied or allowed to happen off screen – but Booth’s devastating performance is itself difficult to watch at times.
As heavy and intense as the subject matter is though, Young keeps viewers entranced with an attractive film. Slow-motion shots of suburbia and kids at play belies the darkness developing on these unassuming streets and even suggest a subconscious desire to hold onto these moments of innocence for as long as possible. Dan Luscombe’s subdued synth score and some inspired and effective song choices – “Night in White Satin” stands out – find a sensory appeal even as we know the vileness unspooling beneath the sounds.
Perth was home to a real-life killer couple in the ’80s named Catherine and David Bernie, but while the film no doubt drew some inspiration from them it could just as easily be based on any number of similar crimes in this sick, sad world of ours.
Hounds of Love is a strong and stylish debut for Young, and while comparisons to the endlessly oppressive The Snowtown Murders are inevitable this is the better and more affecting film. It walks a fine line between entertaining thriller and psychological drama, but it succeeds at merging the two into a darkly memorable feature.
Hounds of Love is currently playing Tribeca Film Festival 2017.