There’s something unsettling about the title Hounds of Love. Maybe its the ambiguity of the title, that it doesn’t quite let on what kind of film you’re getting yourself into. It has the affect of being almost disarming while keeping you slightly off balance, and in that respect it is entirely appropriate. Hounds of Love is the kind of film that is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible and if you are brave enough to stop here and take a chance on the film simply based on its numeric rating (5 out of 5, for those of you who haven’t looked down the page), I strongly suggest you do. For the rest of you, who like to know what you’re getting yourself into before you see a film, I can tell you, that this is one nasty, nasty little film. Now, when I say nasty, I don’t mean gory. This is far from a bloodless film, but if you’re looking for viscera, there is certainly more of it elsewhere. There are no fanged ghouls or masked maniacs in Hounds of Love, but make not mistake, this is a monster movie. And a damn good one.
Our monsters come in the form of Evelyn and John White, played by Emma Booth (Glitch) and Stephen Curry (Rogue). Their hunting ground is the suburbs of Australia in the late 1980s, but if its scarier for you to imagine it as your own town, go right ahead – writer/director Ben Young keeps the geography archetypal enough to be a stand in for just about anywhere. The Whites aren’t unlike any other working class family. They have a small house and a dog; they stick to routines. They also kidnap, torture, and murder young girls. Out prowling for their latest victim, they run into Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings, Tomorrow When the War Began) on her way to a party. After accepting a ride and an offer to buy some grass, Vicki finds herself bound and captive to the sadistic whims of Evelyn and John. Vicki, who initially imagines her capture as a ransom, begins to suspect the Whites have more sinister plans for her when Evelyn forces her to write a letter to her mother, explaining her disappearance as a runaway tryst with a boyfriend. She soon realizes that her only chance for survival is to pit her two captors against one another.
There’s something viciously efficient about the film’s setup. Writer / Director Ben Young doesn’t complicate things with false flags, needless blood-letting, or jarring third act twists. Hounds of Love is a rare horror film almost entirely devoid of unsubstantial jump scares, choosing instead of let the film steep in an increasingly potent sense of dread. Young seems to understand that when it comes to real terror, the actual killings are the least horrifying moments in a horror film. A death, however gruesome, is a release – it lets up the tension. Hounds of Love provides precious little relief. This is an unblinking look into the hearts of monstrous people. To put it simply, this is not a film for the faint of heart.
Hounds of Love wouldn’t work without wall to wall great performances, and it has them. Emma Booth is a tour-de-force as Evelyn, crafting a complex and deeply disturbed woman who might be one of the greatest film villains of modern cinema. Booth imbues Evelyn with a fragility that makes her tragic, unpredictable, dangerous, and impossible to take your eyes off of. Caught between John and Vicki in a web of emotional manipulation, she gives a masterful portrayal of a woman whose world is unraveling. Stephen Curry is spectacularly unsettling as John, but his skinny-man-made-big-by-murder brand of menace feels like a well done rendition of something we’ve seen before. Evelyn is something we haven’t.
While the lion’s share of the film takes place within the confines of the White’s house, Vicki’s abduction is intercut with her mother Maggie (Susan Porter, Star Wars Episode II) and her frantic search to find her daughter, who the police believe has simply run away. Maggie, a woman who left her husband to start her life fresh on her own terms, serves as something of a foil for Evelyn, a woman trapped by the men in her life. The fact is not lost on Evelyn, who forced Vicki to write that her mother inspires her in her letter. It’s refreshing for a screenwriter to not insist that his screenplay be smarter than its own characters.
Hounds of Love is a slow burning film, and has the courage to demand patience from its audience. As such, its audience is inherently narrower than the next franchise horror installment. And that’s a good thing. Truly horrific horror will never be for mass consumption. And that’s what this film is – true horror at its very best.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Ben Young’s Hounds of Love is not for the faint of heart. This isn’t a film that’s good for a scare or two before being forgotten. This isn’t a great first date movie. It’s probably not a great second date movie either. Fueled by a powerhouse performance by Emma Booth, Hounds of Love shines the darkest corners of the human heart to examine the monstrous things we’re capable of doing to ourselves and to others in the name of love. Its a deep, dark, disturbing, masterpiece of a film.
Hounds of Love is testing the psychological endurance of American audiences for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival.