Ben Young/ Australia/ 2016/ 108 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 22 Jan 2018
Think of Australian horror and you might automatically gravitate to outback bruisers like classic Ozploitation Wake in Fright or Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek. Ben Young’s startling debut feature is ostensibly in serial killer territory, but has more in common with Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, with its terrors lurking behind the bland facades of 80’s suburbia rather than the scalding blankness of the Australian desert.
Young makes his everyday setting seem alien with slow-motion tracking shots that evoke the similarly 80’s set surrealism of Donnie Darko and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. We’re made uncomfortable by the leery fixation on the teenage participants of a game of netball, and we soon realise that this puts us into the point-of-view of John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) as they select their next victim. There is enough in this prologue to set out the couple’s sadistically sexual modus operandi and their method of disposal before our protagonist, the rebellious, unsettled Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is coerced into their home, drugged and handcuffed. From there on, Hounds of Love becomes a gruelling battle of wits that resolutely refuses to bow to the standards of exploitation.
What Young achieves is not just a harrowing chiller that relies on mood and implication rather than gore, but an insightful look at domestic abuse. Evelyn is utterly complicit in the murders, but is cowed and dominated by John, who is in turn humiliated and bullied by his associates. In his home, he’s the biggest fish in the smallest pond and Curry (a popular comedian in Australia) portrays a distinctively weaselly kind of evil. It’s this chip in the murderous couple’s relationship that the resourceful Vicki begins to work on.
There are undoubtedly conventions in these type of films to which Hounds of Love resolutely sticks. There is the almost pre-requisite escape attempt that you know is never going to be successful forty minutes in. There are frantic parents, useless cops, and the shackles of small C conservatism that are as inescapable as those endured by Vicki: if she’d only been a good girl and listened to her parents none of this would have happened. These small flaws are more than satisfactorily nullified by Young’s approach to his material, and a tremendous and committed trio of central performances. Booth and Cummings in particular are fearless yet adept at finding the subtleties in the power dynamic between the two women; one apparently totally dominant, yet both victims in their own way.
Hounds of Love is a really quite masterful debut from an intelligent new voice in horror that seems to have arrived fully formed. Those expecting a gore fest may well be disappointed. This is as far removed from the torture porn template as it’s possible to be while remaining within the same genre. This is however a tense, atmospheric serial killer film that rewards the patient and hints that great things are round the corner from Ben Young. No Kate Bush in the soundtrack however, but you can’t have everything.