'Hounds of Love'
Most horror movies, no matter how harrowing, tend to at least let viewers off the hook through some measure of genre fantasy. Some, like ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ or ‘Hounds of Love’, are darker character studies rooted in the deepest reaches of human depravity and qualify as horror because of how unrelentingly harsh and realistically their subject matter is portrayed. There’s no fun to be had in ‘Hounds of Love’, but it will shake viewers willing to engage with this material to their core.
The film opens with eerily serene slow-motion shots of young children playing, so innocent and joyful, unaware that they’re silently being watched by a predator. The serial killers in the film are a couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth). They’re as unassuming in appearance as their names. They live in a lower-end house in an undistinguished neighborhood, dress casually, and appear outwardly friendly. We quickly see them engage in their disgusting routine, tricking a teen girl into their car through Evelyn’s friendly presence, taking her home, tying her to a bed, and torturing her for days until John buries the body in the woods while Evelyn cleans up the crime scene. It’s executed with unsettling calm over a holiday season and the couple go through it with a disaffected sense of routine.
Only then do we meet our protagonist, an angst-ridden teen named Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), who regularly feuds with her recent divorcee mother (Susie Porter) and sneaks out to visit her boyfriend. One night, she’s offered a ride from John and Evelyn after slipping out of her home. She’s not an easy mark, but the couple are experienced manipulators. Step by nauseating step, they coax her into their car, into their home, and then drag her to the bedroom like so many previous victims. However, this time things are different. John becomes particularly obsessed with Vicki, sneaking away from his wife for extra time with her, reading her diary, and cooing that she’s different. This sparks jealousy in Evelyn and gradually we and Vicki learn that she’s as much a victim as a culprit. She’s been abused and used by John since age 13. Vicki sees an opportunity to stoke a rift between the couple that could save her life.
This is a brutal tale and an exhausting movie. However, it’s also far from exploitative. First-time director Ben Young never lingers on the horrors that the women endure. He knows that viewers have either seen it before or are more than capable of imagining the details (or not) themselves. He doesn’t’ sugarcoat anything, just uses blood stains and used instruments of torture as his most graphic shots. The rest quite literally occurs behind closed doors. It’s a very specific filmmaking choice. The horrors of ‘Hounds of Love’ aren’t graphic visuals, but the emotional and psychological turmoil of the events. Young forces us to know these characters and live through the ordeal, which is infinitely more horrifying.
The screenplay has no gratuitous expository sequences either. It unfolds with the ragged rhythms of life or through heightened visual montages that make the implied passage of time more painful. Instead of weaving a story, we live painfully close to the characters. We see how small and pitiful John can be treated in the outside world and how that leads to his violent retribution against innocents. We see the exhaustion and pain that Vicki endures and the inner strength she finds to survive. More than anything else, we grow to see Evelyn as not merely a monster, but a victim herself, gaslighted and abused into her culpable crimes. She’s not necessarily sympathetic, but she’s damaged and suffering through her own tragedy, which makes the situation even more painfully believable.
Performances are absolutely remarkable from all involved. It rarely feels like acting, but broken humans caught on film. That’s far more powerful and horrific to watch than any obvious movie monster.
It’s remarkable that ‘Hounds of Love’ is Young’s first feature, even if he has directed Australian television for a decade. The film is so expertly executed and walks such a difficult line that he’s clearly a major talent already. He gives the film an aesthetic beauty and heightened cinematic style without ever detracting from the stark realism of the piece. ‘Hounds of Love’ is an exquisitely crafted drama so unsettling that it can only be classified as a horror movie. It won’t be for everyone and is hardly a project that could be considered entertaining or thrilling in any conventional sense. However, it’s vital that horror films show the reality of serial killers and sex crimes from time to time as an antidote to the more stylized thrill-rides that predominantly define the genre. Horror fans need to face these realities and few films in recent years have done so as effectively as ‘Hounds of Love’. It’s unlikely that another movie will disturb so deeply this year. For those brave enough to explore this dark corner of cinema, the film must not be missed.