From the very first opening scene of the film, it’s clear that this isn’t your typical abduction movie. Set in the late 1980s in Perth, Australia, the movie begins with a various slow motion shots of teenage girls happily playing netball on a sun-filled balmy day. The girls giggle, practice passing the ball, and shoot happily and sloppily at the goal ring. It’s a perfectly quaint little day in the lives of wholly innocent young people, at what should be a carefree time in their lives…but there’s a pair of seedy eyes watching them from the parking lot.
The eyes belong to John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth), a serial killer couple who have been doing this for so long that they’ve got a system down. They don’t have tattoo-coated arms, or deadpan stares, or a wicked obvious house of horrors – these individuals appear, by all means, completely normal, and their little house in the lower class suburbs blends in on a row of identical structures, both inside and out. There’s nothing about them that would suggest the vile, despicable acts that go on in the privacy of their own quarters. There’s no warning sign to tip young vulnerable girls off to the fact that if they get in the car with John and Evelyn, they’re not getting back out again.
That’s why when angst-ridden fifteen-year-old Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out of her mom’s house after she tells her she can’t go to a party, she hesitates letting sweet-looking John and Evelyn give her a ride to her friend’s place, but ultimately decides it beats walking alone in the dark with drunk boys driving by making cat calls at her. She’s young, naïve, but also, just human. No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them – especially when the predators put on such convincing people suits.
After she is kidnapped, something unusual happens. A schism seems to be forming between the usual sadistic team. John seems to have more of a taken a fancy to Vicki than his previous preys. He sneaks off to be alone with her while Evelyn is busy or out of the house, reads the diary he found in her purse with eager curiosity, and even tells her she is “different” from the other poor souls he’s captured and disposed of. Evelyn begins to notice his odd behavior and grows extremely jealous, prompting John to commit violent behavior against his own girlfriend, which we can only assume has been a pattern of some sort for quite some time. As the course of the narrative twists and turns, a surprising new viewpoint starts to pan out – Vicki isn’t the only victim in this house. If she is to survive this ordeal, her only choice is to feed Evelyn’s insecurity, until she hopefully takes up arms against John. Considering that these abhorrent monsters have been together since Evie was thirteen, it’s looking a little less likely that she can stop them every day.
Devastating, unflinching and completely engrossing, Hounds of Love is a shockingly well-executed abduction thriller. Not everyone will be able to handle it, but what makes that fact a bit unusual is that there are no torture scenes. There are shots of the aftermath; abused girls recoiling in shattered despair, close-ups of locked windows and bloody coat hangers and phallic weapons, but what makes it so different from its predecessors is its choice to not be as exploitative as the usual entries from the sub-genre in which it resides. It doesn’t need to show you graphic depictions of what’s happening to Vicki as she lies helplessly chained to a bed in the White’s guest room. Director Ben Young knows that you already know what’s going on. He doesn’t want to avert your eyes. He’d much rather break your heart.
It’s strange to think that we could feel anything other than contempt for Evelyn as she helps her husband capture little girls and hold them hostage and brutalize them, but each time that John strikes her, each time that she apologizes, and each time he coaxes her fresh bruises with sweet talk, she grows slightly more sympathetic. This is the work of both director Young and star Emma Booth, who delivers a powerful performance as the woman who is stuck in a horribly abusive relationship with the man she’s built a life around. Their behavior is inexcusable and their circumstances are extreme, to say the least, but there is something universal about being afraid to be on your own, going back to the same guy who doesn’t deserve you, and toxic relationships poisoning everything they touch. Watching her struggle to stick up for herself when it comes to the guy who makes her weak at the knees is just as upsetting as watching Vicki try to escape John’s clutches and fail, over and over again. It’s a weird dynamic, but a very smartly played one, making this thriller that should fall between the cracks stand out, and proving that Ben Young is not your typical horror filmmaker, either.
Supposedly, this movie is based on the real life serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie, who went on a killing spree of teenage girls during the 1980s, but the team behind the film seems to be backtracking on that front as of late. There’s quite a few similarities, given that both stories take place roughly within the same time period, both accounts, real and fiction, happened in Australia, and the criminals both have the same deadly duo scenario going on, but according to Young, it’s merely a coincidence. Either way, the fact that the killers mesh so well with regular society, at least on the surface, and that they seem to get away with it so easily makes this tale serve as a haunting warning for anyone who dares to wander out into the uncertainty of the night, especially into a stranger’s car.
The fact that this is writer/director Ben Young’s first movie is absolutely astonishing. This is an up-and-comer that we should all be paying attention to. Hounds of Love is an intense and thought-provoking piece of work, and it will be intriguing to see what Young’s next project, Extinction, winds up looking like. He managed to conjure up a beautifully shot portrayal of wickedness with his first DP, Michael McDermott, so I’m sure with Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe, La Casa Muda) at his side on his next project, it will be even more stunning than this already extremely impressive debut.
If you can stomach it, I implore you to see Hounds of Love when it hits limited theaters on May 12th. It’s a rough watch, but an essential one for lovers of hidden gems of indie cinema.