Australia has a long, rich tradition of down-and-dirty horror, from 1971’s Wake in Fright and 1981’s Road Games, to 1984’s Razorback and 2005’s Wolf Creek, to 2011’s The Snowtown Murders and 2014’s The Babadook. Now joining that illustrious company is Hounds of Love, Ben Young’s feature directorial debut, which delivers a brand of serial-killer abduction terror that’s so bracing, it feels as if it were based on a specific true-crime case. Having premiered to raves at the Venice and Tribeca Film Festivals ahead of its theatrical (and VOD) debut this Friday, it’s a genre effort of assured control and disquieting suspense—as well as a descent into twisted relationship dynamics that culminates in fearsome feminist fashion.
Women are front and center in Hounds of Love, which is rooted in the thorny bonds shared between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands. Set at Christmas 1987, Young’s film fixates on prep schooler Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), who’s seething with resentment at her mother Maggie (Susie Porter) for leaving Vicki’s dad Trevor (Damian de Montemas)—a wealthy surgeon—and relocating them to a lower-rent neighborhood in Perth. Exacerbating this tension is Trevor, who buys Vicki a puppy and pleads with Maggie to take him back, thus putting the onus for Vicki’s unhappy situation squarely on her mom. It’s an unfair burden for Maggie to bear, given that her pained expressions and staunch refusal to reverse course indicate that she’s made her decision because of some (unmentioned, but grave) infraction perpetrated by Trevor.
Despite being told by Maggie that she can’t attend a party, Vicki slips out of her bedroom window at night and heads to the shindig. Given what we already know about her environment, this is a terribly unwise decision. That’s because, in a haunting introduction, the director pans across a schoolyard in super slow-motion, gazing at nubile girls at play (their hands, their hips, their thighs), his camera moving ever-so-slightly faster than those figures in the frame—a sly visual suggestion that the watcher is one step ahead of those being watched. Before long, two people in a car are successfully offering a ride home to one of those schoolgirls. What follows are sights that elucidate the ordeal that befell her: a dildo in a briefcase; bruised wrists chained to a post; a man loading a tarp-wrapped object into a trunk; and a woman cleaning up bloody tissues lying beside a bed, and then pensively hanging laundry outside.
That woman is Evelyn (Emma Booth), and she and her husband John (Stephen Curry) are lunatics who find their next victim in Vicki, pulling up alongside her as she secretly absconds to her evening get-together, and coaxing her back to their place with the promise of selling her weed. Despite Vicki’s reluctance, she acquiesces, until she’s in their living room having a drink—which, it turns out, is drugged. As she loses focus, John turns up a radio broadcast of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and begins dancing with Evelyn in a scarily sexual way, all groping hands and lustful eyes. Then, the duo grab Vicki and wrestle her into a bedroom, with Young’s camera watching at a distance through doorways, the pedestrian foreground images of a kitchen table and chair amplifying the banality of this evil.
At repeated moments, Hounds of Love visually recedes from a boarded-up window or shut door, the better to imply the ominous crimes being committed right behind everyday façades. Vicki, however, isn’t the only one being mistreated in this ranch-style dwelling. As Young’s tale reveals, while John is out dealing with a tattooed cohort to whom he owes money, and Vicki and Evelyn are spending one-on-one time together (at knifepoint), Evelyn is herself a deeply abused, and confused, figure. Participating in her husband’s homicidal activities—which invariably involve rape, and end with a body buried in the middle of a remote forest—because she wants his approval and devotion, Evelyn is a battered wife of a most dangerous sort, so loathing the women John brings home (because he wants them) that she’s willing to help kill, and yet subconsciously aware that he only loves her the way a master loves a slave.
The key revelation in Hounds of Love is that Evelyn has young kids from a prior affair, and that she’s desperate to regain custody of them (which she lost, due to some obliquely mentioned incident that may have involved John). As such, she is, like Maggie, a mother consumed with reuniting with her offspring. For all of the finely tuned details underscoring Evelyn’s subservience to John, the best being the way she meticulously arranges his two pieces of breakfast toast on a plate in order to curry his favor, it’s this parent-child bond that truly powers Young’s film, sending it hurtling toward a conclusion in which Evelyn’s allegiances to various loved ones is put to the test. Booth, for her part, is a mesmerizing presence, expressing the contradictory impulses plaguing Evelyn’s heart with a volatile intensity that makes her behavior understandable, if still disturbing.
Though Vicki derisively tells her mom she doesn’t want to be “a strong independent woman like you,” Hounds of Love is, ultimately, a film about breaking free of domineering male control—which is exerted not only by John, but also by Trevor, who unfairly tells Maggie, “Our daughter’s run away because you put yourself over your family.” Both Vicki and Evelyn learn, in time, that there’s a virtue to escaping masculine shackles. Young, however, refuses to sermonize. Rather, that commentary emerges naturally from his precise plotting, which is rife with nightmarish touches, such as Evelyn and John demanding that Vicki write her mom comforting letters about how she’s run away to carve out a new life, just as Maggie has vis-à-vis her divorce.
Young ramps up the horror by eschewing graphic depictions of torture and murder (the less you see, the more you can imagine). And in shots of wood-paneled walls, pitiful Christmas trees, and the weird animal figurines (a smiling pig, a pair of wolves) decorating their shelves, he captures the hermetic creepiness of Evelyn and John’s residence. Via a late bit of misdirection and his finale, respectively, the director provides shout-outs to two spiritual predecessors that clearly informed this girl-kidnapped-by-fiends tale: The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yet Hounds of Love is a sinister, psychologically screwy thriller that stands on its own merits, radiating—in sleek slow-motion panoramas set to ominous droning and tunes like Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”—a dreamy, deviant vision of female subjugation, and empowerment.