There is a scene early in Hounds of Love—the first scene, in fact—where two predators watch their prey on a tennis court. The meat before them is young, nubile, and blonde. She is also for all intents and purposes faceless, devoid of an identity because her stalkers, the eponymous hounds, have no concern for the soul within their quarry. At least that is what they tell themselves. And so the sequence is shot wholly in extreme close-ups of arms, thighs, that blonde, blonde hair, and of carnivorous eyes sitting in a parked car. It is the literalization of Carol Clover’s famed essay about horror movies objectifying the female form via visual and eventual dismemberment.
But this is neither exploitation or horror; it is the beginning of a pressure cooker set by newcomer director Ben Young. And it is one hell of a grueling, and intensely compelling, debut too. Hounds of Love is a fiercely powerful film that will hit viewers with blunt force trauma and play manipulative torment on their emotions. It is also an immensely impressive achievement of a thriller that may hopefully be the final word on the recently burgeoning “kidnapped girl” subgenre.
Set in the Australian city of Perth during 1987, Hounds of Love adds a wrinkle to the movie serial killer archetype since it is about a husband and wife team who treats murder as a tug of war between passion and enablement. The central pair are John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth). Their modus operandi is to pick up teenage girls off the side of the road through some friendly story about offering a ride, wanting to share free drinks, or just about anything that gets them into the car and, eventually, into a child’s bedroom that has been retrofitted into a new 10th level of hell.
One such poor girl is Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), a smart and observant teen who makes a single bad mistake in accepting a ride after sneaking out of her house (she’s fighting with her mom after her parents divorced). She is soon drugged and tied to a bed. Trapped in absolute terror, she also bears witness to a grotesque dynamic between her assaulters, with Evelyn convincing herself time and again that she wants to help her husband violate these girls and feed his heinous lusts. It brings them closer together, of course.
Absent the children Evelyn yearns for—she had them from a different beau who has fortuitously retained complete custody of the kids—she and her husband make due with pet dogs and pet victims. While Vicki’s mother Maggie (Susie Porter) also frantically searches for her own missing lamb, Vicki is quick to guess her only hope of survival is to pour gasoline on the toxic flame that is the happy marriage before her.
There have been many films about young women trapped in rooms as of late, but few go for the visceral jugular like Young does in his premiere film. While the worst violence perpetrated against Vicki is entirely implied, and blessedly never shown, the malevolent implications hang over every scene and inform every moment, even ones of domestic resignation between Maggie and her own ex-husband as each passing second leaves their daughter in greater danger.
The film lays three or four narrative strands in its first act, which Young, who also wrote the screenplay, meticulously and sharply tightens with each one of the movie’s 108 minutes until it forms a garrote around the audience’s neck during the finale. Shot and edited with precision, Hounds of Love is a severe ordeal that the more daring moviegoing audiences will revel in.
The picture also is aided by a genuine authenticity provided by all of the actors. Curry is appropriately insidious as an unsuspecting lecher down the street, but really Booth is the one allowed to show off among the killers. Her Evelyn has the absurd delusion that she is a nice person and could perhaps become a good one, a facet that would be tragic if her character was not so evil. But Booth plays this total lack of awareness, and her desperate need to physically cling to Curry’s John for all sense of self-worth, with the conviction of a protagonist in a romancer’s opera.
Cummings is also quite good as Vicki, a girl who never can say what she is really thinking, as she realizes her situation goes from bad to dangerous, to nigh inescapable. Her decisions and attempts to play her captors off one another are never given exposition or more than a glance, visibly draining her mind all the more.
We have had a bevy of girls-kidnapped-by-monster movies as of late. They have ranged from the extraordinarily subtle and even uplifting (Room) to the high-concept or exploitative (10 Cloverfield Lane, Split). Hounds of Love joins that recent canon but takes this horrendous nightmare to its most blunt impact. Ben Young’s movie goes where the others have implied, and it does so with shocking amounts of grit, humanity, and even artistry.
It so achieves its goals that one hopes this is as far as filmmakers may venture in the subject, for the shadows are already agonizingly deep here.