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Hounds of Love opens on a netball match, being viewed in bullet-time slow-motion, lingering intrusively on the girls’ tanned legs and short swishing netball skirts. The individual through whose eyes we are seeing this perfectly innocent after-school activity is viewing the contest from afar, sexualising every movement, savouring it, drinking it in. It’s uncomfortable from the off, but Hounds of Love is merely beginning as it means to go on. A film hasn’t made me feel this uncomfortable since Wolf Creek (2005) over a decade ago, and not so relentlessly from start to finish since Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) TWO decades ago.
Vikki (Ashleigh Cummings) is an adolescent living with her mum in Perth, Australia, sometime in the mid/late eighties. She’s resentful of mum’s recent decision to leave dad and this presents itself in the form of the usual acts of teenage rebellion: Casual experimentation with recreational drugs, sneaking out to parties et cetera. It’s on her way to one such party that Vikki encounters Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry), who pull up beside her in their car and ask her if she’d like to score some pot. Since Vikki hasn’t lived in the area for very long she’s more interested in finding a payphone so she can get a taxi but, hey, Evelyn and John’s house is just nearby, she can call a cab from there and they’ll build her a nice big blunt to take to her party while she waits. She’d never normally take a lift from a stranger but this isn’t some guy prowling about on his own, it’s a couple. And Evelyn seems nice, and the thought of taking a lovely big bifta to her mates at the party seems very nice. It’ll be fine, just this once, eh?
Well, no, it won’t be fine. It won’t be fine at all.
John and Evelyn are serial abductors and killers of high-school girls, and they do so for their shared sexual kicks. These are the people who were watching the netball match at the start of the movie and at this point in the proceedings we’ve already seen John disposing of their previous houseguest. At their house, Evelyn engages Vikki in some friendly chit-chat about her marriage to John and about her kids from a previous relationship whom she never sees, and she pours Vikki a drink which also happens to be spiked. Vikki has just enough time to realise she’s being overpowered, dragged to a small room at the back of the house, gagged, and handcuffed to a bed before she passes out. The clock is now ticking, and Vikki has to somehow convince Evelyn that her monstrous actions are a result of John’s abuse and that it’s not too late to change, in the hope Evelyn might relent and release Vikki before the couple tire of her and dispose of her. In the meantime, John wants to play…
I almost swerved Hounds of Love. Early buzz around the picture suggested to me that it might be an exercise in torture porn, and I had little desire in getting my cinematic jollies watching some poor soul being brutalised for an hour or so. I’m fine with a gore flick but it needs to be a fun ride too. Endurance tests of graphic human suffering merely for suffering’s sake is old hat for me. I’ve no interest in it. However, it would appear that writer/director Ben Young has little interest in titillating his audience with an overabundance of grue here either, because the focus of this quite remarkable debut feature – based loosely upon the Moorhouse murderers David and Margaret Birnie, who abducted and raped five girls in Perth in 1986, killing four of them – isn’t on the acts of barbarism perpetrated directly upon Vikki’s person, the vast majority of which happens mercifully just off-camera with the blanks filled in by our own horror-stricken, reeling minds. The focus is on Vikki, the victim; on John, the monster; and most of all on Evelyn, who has become a monster under the yoke of John’s years of psychological abuse towards her. Outside of the murderous sex-crazed hell he’s created in his home, John is a weak man, mocked and dismissed by his peers. When a neighbour hears Vikki scream for help, he has Evelyn deal with it even though the neighbour is shouting for John to come to the door, mistakenly assuming it was Evelyn screaming for help in the midst of what must be yet another domestic.
But why does Evelyn go to the lengths to which she does for John? Well, she’s not very bright, she’s deeply insecure and she’s somewhat smitten by John, who has used all of this to manipulate her to such a degree that she is not only prepared but willing to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of their relationship. John has convinced her that this is all about them when it’s clearly about him. Vikki, assaulted both by the couple and by John on his own in Evelyn’s absence understands this and knows that convincing Evelyn is the only hope she has of escaping this, which won’t be easy since Evelyn’s reaction to John’s treatment of her manifests as a sick jealousy of John’s attention to the girls they abduct. The more he wants to rape them, the quicker she wants to kill them. It’s these relationships between the three principal characters, brought to life with stunning conviction by Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry and especially by Emma Booth as Evelyn, which makes Hounds of Love so grimly fascinating and which keeps us, the audience, bound in place throughout a movie which retains from start to finish the most palpable sense of dread I’ve experienced in years.
Hounds of Love is not a movie which will entertain you. It is not a movie you will “enjoy”. It’s likely not a movie you will want to see more than once. I’m unsure if I’ll ever choose to settle down to it a second time. But it is gripping, nerve-shredding and even grotesquely beautiful in its way; an unsettling, grounded horror told without compromise but nonetheless with great integrity, deliberation and guile, and featuring not one but three performances which will not be bettered in a film of this type this year. Strongly recommended.