Vicki Maloney is randomly abducted from a suburban street by a disturbed couple. As she observes the dynamic between her captors she quickly realises she must drive a wedge between them if she is to survive.
Introducing the Australian premiere of his latest film, Hounds of Love, at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, Stephen Curry began with an apology. “I apologise in advance if anyone expected The Castle. This isn’t The Castle.”
Indeed, audiences hoping for a second round with Dale Kerrigan are sure to be disappointed. And probably disgusted. From debut director Ben Young, Hounds of Love delves into the darker side of Australia, centring on a couple, John (Curry) and Evie (Emma Booth) with a predilection for abducting, murdering and molesting teenage girls. From its opening minutes, which include super slow-mo leering at young netballers’ bodies and a montage of blood, wire and dildos, it’s clear that we’re passing through territory closer to Wolf Creek or Snowtown.
The film revolves around the abduction and escape attempts of John and Evie’s latest victim, Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings), but while the shape of the plot will be familiar to horror/thriller aficionados, Young’s screenplay gently pushes back against convention. For starters, despite setting his story in December 1987, Young avoids the genre fetishism of his contemporaries, instead opting for a washed-out aesthetic that’s more indebted to sun-bleached Perth lawns, goon sacks and faded linoleum than John Carpenter’s Halloween.
But what really sets Hounds of Love apart is how it digs into the cultural scaffolding of its subject matter. Since Halloween, horror cinema has revelled in the deaths of young women, but their killers are invariably monsters. Masked men or supernatural entities; fearsome fantasies divorced from day-to-day life. The real killer of women is domestic violence; a 2015 study found that, in 2013 USA, 62% of murdered women “were wives of other intimate acquaintances of their killers.”
Fittingly, then, Hounds of Love avoids lingering on the specifics of the violence acted upon Cummings (most of the particulars are left to your imagination) to address the warped psychology of John and Evie’s relationship. It’s an especially terrifying example of emotional abuse, with Evie – already an abuse victim when she first met John – consistently manipulated by a sociopath able to probe her deepest psychological wounds, while offering sufficient support to create a twisted dependency.
"Booth is the real standout, capturing the moral complexities of her character by conveying a fraught combination of fragility and predatory guile."
Evie is both villain and victim, complicit in her terrible actions but just as trapped as her prisoners. Over the course of its runtime, the film also examines the social structures that enable John’s dominance over his partner in crime. There’s the neighbour who comes to their door after he hears screaming, who threatens to call the police, who tells Evie “it doesn’t have to be like this”… but who ultimately does nothing to help. There’s the police officers who belittle the fears of Vicky’s mother (Susie Porter). Or the dynamic between Vicky’s divorced parents, where her mother’s choice to leave an unhealthy relationship is disingenuously framed as betrayal by her father (Damian de Montemas).
Such subtext is elevated by the all-around excellent work of the cast. Curry is legitimately unnerving as John, concealing a fundamental numbness to human emotion beneath a convincingly charming mask. Cummings is largely tasked to act terrified, which she handles with aplomb. But Booth is the real standout, capturing the moral complexities of her character by conveying a fraught combination of fragility and predatory guile. She’s required to shoulder the burden of the Hounds of Love’s thematic thrust, and her steadfast refusal to allow her character to slide into cliché is critical to the film’s success. Mention, too, must be made of The Drones’ Dan Luscombe contributions to the score, which finds unnerving intimacy in a melodic electronica (aided by needle drops from the likes of Boys Next Door and Joy Division; Kate Bush, who inspired the title, is sadly absent from the soundtrack).
Hounds of Love is, on the whole, an impressive debut, and a worthy addition to the canon of Aussie horror. While its disturbing subject matter might scare away mainstream audiences, those with the stomach for the material will find a deftly-directed, thematically-rich take on the prevalence of abuse, especially against women, and society’s complicity in its proliferation.
'Hounds of Love' is currently screening at SXSW.