The opening segment of Hounds of Love is a mission statement from director Ben Young. A netball match plays out in slow-motion, watched from a parked car. A shadowed hand appears on the skirt of one of the player’s skirts – a suggestive nod toward the sexual violence enacted by the couple upon their victims. Far from being a graphic, gore-orientated film, Hounds of Love is about claustrophobia, in both setting and the relationships it portrays.
John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth respectively) are a disturbed couple, engaging in the kidnap, rape, and murder of young girls. However, their latest victim, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) threatens to expose the flaws in their relationship.
It would be easy for a film of this nature to become a collection of extended torture sequences to drive home the horror of the situation. What Hounds does, however, is far more skilful and effective. Much of the abuse is suggested in the form of new bruises in the aftermath of attacks or fleeting shots which allow for the horror to be apparent without offering lingering detail. The house is frequently shot as if it were a maze and Vicki’s screams fill the space with slow shots. The result of this slow meander around the house makes you feel almost too familiar with the setting and turns you into an uncomfortably close observer.
Before watching I became aware of an element of controversy surrounding the true crime background of the film. Kate Moir, a victim of real-life kidnappers David and Catherine Birnie stated that the film’s creation made her feel ‘taken advantage of and confused’ due to the similarities of her ordeal with the film’s content. While director Ben Young has distanced himself from the Birnie case, certainly some details do appear in the film, albeit in slightly different ways. This is a source of discomfort, although Hounds is obviously not the first, nor will it be the last horror film to use real-life murders as the basis for plots and characters. More on this at this article in The Guardian.
What is notable is that the audience are never asked to really identify with the couple and it regards them as dangerous, but also pathetic from the outset. By virtue of being grim and Australian, the film has been mentioned in the same breath as Wolf Creek. However, Hounds does not afford its villains any one-liners or quips like Mick Taylor. What makes the Whites so frightening is how unassuming they are. They are represented as completely fragile, meaning that the strength of their victim is far more pronounced. Furthermore, there are few attempts to provide any background or answers for why they do what they do. While some reasoning is offered for Evelyn, it never excuses her. The lack of explanation offers a further sense of pointlessness which draws attention to the horrible nature of their crimes.
I was aware of a scene of animal cruelty before watching and this is another element that is handled with some sophistication. My concern with scenes of animal cruelty is that they are often ‘cheap’ or used as shorthand to show how evil a character is. The cruelty in Hounds is short and impactful, although conforms to the film’s other treatment of violence by taking place mostly off-screen. It is, most importantly, symbolic. It adds something to the film and the characters within it, rather than existing as another horrible act.
The central trio all put on fantastic performances, although Emma Booth is a stand-out, offering some vulnerability and increasing amounts of desperation. Stephen Curry, primarily known for comedic performances in Australia joins the ranks of comics excelling at drama. The film hangs on his escalating cruelty and unpredictability. Ashleigh Cummings completes the three-hander, offering a sympathetic performance with edge, making Vicki much more than a one-dimensional victim.
Overall, Hounds of Love is a deeply affecting, tense piece of drama which effectively revolts and horrifies without the use of sustained gore or torture. It offers no glorification of the killers at the centre of the story and restrains its use of graphic violence to only the most important moments. Themes of obedience, rebellion, loyalty, and emotionally-strained relationships play out within a tense environment which prioritises atmosphere over action. It is excellently crafted and while no one could suggest it is entertaining, it is certainly a work which demands attention.