Writer/director Ben Young’s first feature debut marks him as an auteur in the making. Drawing inspiration from the true crime of David and Catherine Birnie, a couple who abducted and mutilated four Perth women in the 1980s, Young’s feature is a harrowing, deeply powerful watch. Following teen Vicki Maloney, the troubled teen finds herself the latest victim of a disturbed couple. If she has any hope for survival, she must drive a wedge between the couple and rely on her wits.
The film quickly establishes Evelyn and John White as one nasty couple not to cross paths with. With clever, discrete camera work, we’re introduced to the Whites’ modus operandi in blood-chilling fashion. They cruise the neighborhood to select a victim, offer her a ride, and then chain her to the bed in a guest bedroom. When John has satiated his deviant sexual appetite for the teenaged victim, he buries her body out in the woods.
Meanwhile, the viewer is introduced to their latest unsuspecting victim, Vicki, a teen dealing with the emotional devastation of her parent’s looming divorce. Her anger toward her mother leads to rebellious behavior, which causes her to fall prey to the Evelyn’s luring charm. From here, the expectation that this seemingly familiar narrative will play out in familiar ways is subverted in every sense.
Though Vicki’s victimization and struggle for survival is heartbreaking and disturbing to watch unfold, this is not her story. Young’s story subtly shifts its focus to Evelyn, the woman so broken in her domesticity with a terrifying psychopath. From the moment the Whites abduct Vicki, it’s clear that John is a bit more invested in her than previous victims. It sets off Evelyn’s insecurities, of which Vicki does what she can to take advantage, but it unravels the deep psychosis that allows for the film to explain why anyone could possibly be with someone like John. Vicki’s survival becomes secondary to the troubling and heartbreaking character study of Evelyn.
The deep, reality based roots makes the film far more grounded, and more terrifying than typical genre films of its ilk. Stephen Curry is downright horrifying as John, and the pleasure his character derives from sexual assaulting and torturing these young girls is skin crawling. That alone would be enough to mark him as a petrifying villain, but his manipulation of Evelyn and explosive anger compounds it further. Animal lovers beware, there’s one scene of animal violence guaranteed to upset even the most hard-hearted.
Young’s debut feature surprises on every level. The subject matter is heavy and traumatic, yet Young treats it with respect. He opts to focus on the emotional weight of the story, leaving much for the audience to glean for themselves with a clever visual approach. In moments of extreme horror, Young cuts away and lets the camera focus on other objects. In one scene of sexual assault, the camera pans to an unobtrusive knick knack in the room, leaving the viewer to focus only on the gut-wrenching audio of John’s torture. Imagery of Evelyn cleaning up after John’s latest act makes for a much more effective way to elicit emotional response than the exploitive in-your-face way most rape horror tends to take.
Hounds of Love is a visceral experience. It’s a brutal, tough watch that has no interest in making things easy for its audience. It’s a profoundly emotional journey that leaves you breathless for the entire ride. The three core actors, Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, and Stephen Curry, commit tenfold to each of their deeply flawed, but deeply human roles. It’s difficult to call a movie of this nature as excellent, but the film is so well crafted, so well written, so emotionally devastating, and so thought-provoking that it’s difficult to call it anything but.
Hounds of Love will be released on May 12, 2017.