In Ben Young’s chilling, ambitious and impressive debut, Hounds of Love, victims come in all forms.
By Nick Milligan
A methodical and glacial slow tracking shot opens the debut film of Australian writer-director Ben Young. It’s a bright and hot afternoon in 1987. A sweaty netball game is in full flight and it appears at the edge of frame, soon turning into close-ups of teenage girls, shorts skirts and contorting young flesh floating through the air as if the male gaze has become a viscous solution and they are suspended within it. It’s the best opening to a movie so far this year.
But it’s not just the male gaze into which we’ve been plunged. There’s a lady here too. We’re inside the car of Hounds of Love‘s two star-crossed psychopaths, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth). They’re prowling for their next victim. Moments later a teenage girl is walking home from high school in scorching heat and she accepts a ride with the apparently easy-going couple. “You’ll cook out there,” Evelyn casually points out. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
A quick montage of handcuffed wrists, sex toys, bloodied tissues, an unassuming suburban brick home and an apparently relaxed John driving into the forest with a body in his trunk tells us that the Whites are two seasoned – and especially twisted – predators.
We then meet Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) – your typical teenager. Her parents Maggie and Trevor (Susie Porter and Damian de Montemas) are getting a divorce, so Vicki is rebelling. She’d rather cheat on her exams and hook up with her boyfriend Jason (Harrison Gilbertson) than ace those tests.
It doesn’t take a thriller aficionado to deduce that Vicki’s path is soon going to cross with the Whites. When Vicki sneaks out after dark to attend a party, John and Evelyn’s bomb car rolls from the night like a beaten-up tiger shark. The couple coax Vicki back to their house with the promise of cheap pot. She’s not about to leave any time soon.
Despite being bound and gagged, Vicki quickly works out that all is not well in the White household. If you ignore the couple’s nightmarish legacy of rape and murder, behind the curtain of mayhem is an abusive relationship. The Whites are far from an even partnership. Despite being a serial killer, Evelyn’s also a victim.
Herein lies the central problem with Ben Young’s visually impressive debut movie – the arm wrestle between reality and literary contrivance. Hounds of Love fits into a new wave of modern “horror” films that exploit the tropes of the genre to deliver a message. The Babadook, for example, is actually about grief, not an actual monster. Geddit?
Don’t be surprised if Hounds of Love reminds you of Justin Kurzel’s traumatising masterpiece Snowtown. That film was about John Bunting’s real-life killing spree – affectionately known as the “bodies in barrels” murders. Hounds of Love, in similar fashion, opens the gates of hell in a suburban neighbourhood (this time in Young’s home state of Western Australia, as opposed to the titular South Australian location in Snowtown).
Kurzel kept Snowtown very close to the truth of Bunting and his accomplices, and their bone-chilling acts between 1992 and 1999. It’s a deliberate and no-holds-barred depiction of what actually happened (as far as we know), as seen through the eyes of impressionable Jamie Vlassakis. Kurzel locates his themes within that very real subject matter – social dislocation, poverty, homophobia, broken homes, pedophilia – how a microcosm (nay, a perfect storm) could prove fertile soil for a serial killer like Bunting to flourish.
Hounds of Love is very close to the cruel acts of infamous perverts David and Catherine Birnie, who perpetrated what were known as the Moorhouse murders. In Perth, in the late ’80s, they lured, raped and killed four women between the ages of 15 and 31. Their attempted fifth victim escaped and their fun was swiftly over.
Young has borrowed heavily from the Birnie’s sordid spree, including the White’s methods of capture and their sexual trysts with their captives. But he’s changed the names here because the real-life ending to the Birnie saga doesn’t quite suit the statement about domestic abuse and victimhood that the director wants to make. He needs Evelyn White to be a sympathetic creature, for the audience to look beyond her horrifying deeds and see her life reflected metaphorically in that of her victims.
Young could have dredged empathy from Evelyn’s past, building and layering her as Patty Jenkins did so effectively with real-life killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster. But his screenplay doesn’t have that luxury. It’s scope is a far more claustrophobic, real-time character study. We get tidbits – White has two children that she desperately wants to be allowed to live with her. She loves her dog. But is this enough to humanise her? The film’s effectiveness hinges on whether White is capable of waking to the reality of her situation and terrible actions.
“…in the film’s strongest and most horrifying scene, The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’ plays out like the spectre of the Grim Reaper himself.”
You can see the appeal of the over-arching concept – the idea that it takes a victim of physical and emotional abuse to point out to a serial killer that she is also a victim of physical and emotional abuse. There is grand ambition at work here. But Young is venturing into very dicey territory – and it doesn’t quite work. He could have perhaps named his film after a more appropriate Kate Bush tune – ‘Running Up that Hill’ – because this is a steep climb from the outset.
Young’s method of delivery – a hyper-real depiction of events – doesn’t allow him to overcome the concept’s glaring contrivances. Young wants to craft a dissertation on the nature of abusive relationships… and eat his cake too. An element of humour, however perverse, might have allowed greater suspension of disbelief. What we’re given at the film’s conclusion is a big stretch (would that really happen?). You also feel like Young has pulled his punches, and he steps back from the ledge at the final moment.
Music plays a key role despite (apparently due to licensing costs) ‘Hounds of Love’ not making an appearance. But as the narrative approaches Christmas, a range of carols are used to atmospheric effect, as is Cat Stevens’ ‘Lady D’Arbanville’. However, in the film’s strongest and most horrifying scene, The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’ plays out like the spectre of the Grim Reaper himself.
Given its subject matter, it won’t come as a surprise that Hounds of Love is not an easy film to watch. Though it received rave reviews upon its premiere in Venice, people also walked out of the screenings. Though much of the violence and rape is played off screen, this does little to lessen the impact. You get the sense that Young would like his film to be hard-hitting, and taken as seriously as Kurzel’s Snowtown and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (though Hounds of Love is sure to put Young on the same Hollywood trajectory as those two directors – he’s already working on big budget sci-fi Extinction). But if you’re a fan of tense thrillers and crime drama, then you’ll revel in the experience.
Contrivances aside, Young, a seasoned music video director, is flirting with greatness in his debut feature. So is his cast of actors. As Evelyn, Booth is truly astounding. The movie’s weightiest contradictions rest squarely on her shoulders and she does a mesmerising job of balancing cruelty and simmering humanity. Young’s assertion is that those two traits can co-exist, and Booth goes to great emotional lengths to make you believe. She’s fragile, fraying and, yet, clearly capable of pure sadism.
It must be said that Cummings’ performance as Vicki is especially brave – her terror is palpable. The actress is way off the map here – Hounds is a far cry from her television work in Puberty Blues, Gallipoli and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – but she’s effortlessly natural in her performance. Keep your eye out for her.
Curry’s turn is likely to draw the most attention. John White is the kind of creepy killer that all serious actors need on their showreel. Much will be made of how the actor’s appearance here will vanquish all memory of the rosy-cheeked sweetness of The Castle‘s Dale Kerrigan (The Castle would certainly make a demented double feature with Hounds of Love, especially if you imagine the latter is the sequel of the former – Dale, is that you?).
But you ultimately feel that Curry’s been restrained, toned down and tempered into Young’s perception of realism. What could have been a perversely charismatic and wickedly terrifying performance lacks the punch that the actor’s comic muscle could have delivered. Instead he’s closed off and detached, cold and conniving, weak, void of charm. It’s incredibly hard to comprehend what Evelyn sees in him – why she’s so blindly besotted – but perhaps that’s the point about abusive relationships that Young intends to make.
Mention must also go to the always sturdy Susie Porter as Vicki’s determined mother who, despite the rather questionable opinion of local police, refuses to accept that her daughter has simply run away.
One prominent character that can’t be left unmentioned is 1980s Australian suburbia which, somewhat unsurprisingly, smacks of 1970s Australian suburbia. Young and his production team’s attention to detail is superb (especially if you’re old enough to remember the Telecom logo). More of those slow motion tracking shots show lawns being mowed and kids dancing through a sprinkler. It’s a series of evocative establishing shots reminiscent of Lynch’s depiction of Lumberton in the opening of Blue Velvet: the shiny, dream-like surface of the suburban sprawl. Like Lynch, Young seems very interested in what lies beneath.
HOUNDS OF LOVE opens in Australian cinemas on June 1.