Why do we enjoy horror movies? Being drawn to comedy or romance makes sense — who doesn’t want to laugh and fall in love? But horror is a baser genre — more visceral, more primal. There is, of course, an exhilarating thrill in being briefly scared and then walk away unscathed — after all, that’s why people like roller coasters. This analogy is apt for slasher pictures and ghost stories, where the horror elements can be laughed off once we exit the darkness into the sunlight. And then there are the films like Ben Young’s Hounds of Love. The horror on display here isn’t for thrill seekers. It’s not something you shed like a coat as you step into a warmer location. It lingers with you; engulfs you like a freezing wind. It is a supremely unpleasant movie.
And yet, it’s brilliant.
Writer-director Young, in his feature debut, has tapped into something raw and remarkable here. A film like The Hounds of Love should almost be unwatchable based on subject matter alone, yet there’s a distinct, tarnished beauty at work here, a sure-sign that Young has a keen eye for the genre. Set during a blazing Australian Christmas in the 1980s, Hounds of Love opens with leering, lecherous close-ups of high school cheerleaders practicing their routine. Using slow-motion, Young & cinematographer Michael McDermott put is in the mindset of a voyeur, fetishizing every single curve of a leg or swell of a breast. The girls are being watched by a man and a woman sitting in their beat-up car — John White (Stephen Curry) and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth). After the practice breaks up, John and Evelyn follow one of the teenage girls and offer her a lift. From the distance Young keeps from the scene we can sense that catching a ride from these two is bad business. Before long, the girl is chained up in a seedy bedroom in the White’s house, eventually murdered and buried. And this is only the beginning. The White’s will need another victim soon.
Soon we met another girl, Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings). Vicki’s parents are divorcing and she’s not taking it very well. While walking to a party one night she too is offered a ride from the White’s, who offer to sell her some weed back at their place. She spots a baby seat in the back of their car and assumes the couple is harmless. It’s not long before she too is chained up in the White’s spare bedroom. The White’s are pros — they’ve done this before. Only this time, things will be different.
John takes a “liking” to Vicki more so than he has with previous victims, and his extra attention begins to irk Evelyn. Sensing this rift in the couple, Vicki realizes she has to exploit it to her advantage. As her captivity continues she sees that John is not just abusive to his captive victims, but also to Evelyn. If she can just turn Evelyn against John, maybe she can get out of here alive. Maybe.
Hounds of Love deals with abuse, kidnapping and rape, yet Young manages to avoid falling into an exploitative rut. This film is incredibly disturbing, yet it’s somehow never grotesque. Young achieves this with close-ups and subtle shots — like cutting to the boarded-up guest room window whenever something truly terrible is happening, or keeping his camera at a safe distance while a disturbance is happening down the hall. It gives the film a dreamy, almost otherworldly effect, and it renders it more powerful and terrifying in the process. By never explicitly showing all the nastiness, Young allows the audience to assume the worst.
None of this would work as well as it does were it not for the performances, particularly Emma Booth as Evelyn. There is zero excuse for what Evelyn does, yet Booth manages to generate a modicum of pity playing the severely emotionally damaged character. Vicki, and by extension the audience, learn more and more about Evelyn as the film progresses, and we come to see what hell John has made her life. The two have essentially been together since Evelyn was 13, and there’s no other life for her outside of John’s murderous orbit. With weary eyes and a rage you can sense simmering behind them, Booth turns what could’ve been a one-dimensional monster into something far more tragic and fascinating. There are no such redeeming characteristics about John, however, and Stephen Curry plays this to perfection, portraying John as a vile, petty creep. Ashleigh Cummings, as Vicki, gets put through the ringer and more here, yet there’s more than just victimization to her performances; there’s a fierceness driving her. The three leads are locked in a fierce struggle, and we’re drawn in and on edge the entire time, waiting to see who comes out ahead.
Hounds of Love will repulse some viewers. It’s not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. This is not a film for the casual horror fan who wants that brief, fleeting roller coaster thrill. But if you can stomach what the film is offering, and if you’re looking for horror that lingers long after the credits have rolled, you’ll find something remarkable here.