Hounds Of Love Review [SXSW 2017]
Ben Young’s Hounds Of Love unleashes an alpha’s howl, asserting dominance over the serial killer genre. Scripting could care less about gore or death. Terror chases a sick perversion, family dysfunction and one girl’s noose-taught prayer for survival. It’s a knockout blow that shocks with true-crime appeal, dagger-sharp in its ability to pierce our most guarded vulnerabilities. True evil simmers under a sun-soaked Australian winter, as an animalistic romance gnashes with bloodied fangs. My oh my, Mr. Young. Directorial debuts are rarely this poised, devastating or dangerous.
Perth, Western Australia. December 1987. A teenage girl named Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), struggles to cope with her parents’ divorce (played by Susie Porter and Damian de Montemas). When her mother denies a night out, Vicki takes matters into her own hands. She throws some pillows under her sheets and climbs out a bedroom window, walking through Perth alone. A car pulls close and offers her drugs. Behind the wheel is Evelyn (Emma Booth), and in the passenger seat sits John (Stephen Curry). The man fumbles for drugs but reveals he’s left the stash at home, so Vicki accompanies them back. She’s offered a drink, which turns out to be drugged. From here she’s bound, gagged and held captive for John’s personal enjoyment, snatched from an otherwise quiet suburban bubble.
And that’s just the beginning.
Hounds Of Love makes all the right moves by focusing on emotions and fear, not torture pleasures. John’s composed normality plays second to Evelyn’s undying commitment, as Young distorts all we do in the name of love. Vicki tries to spell out how John is manipulating Evelyn – as good sociopaths do – but Evelyn’s paranoia is too deeply rooted. Although, it’s not a fear of human atrocities. Evelyn is jealous of her husband’s underage rape fantasies. Insecurity furthers her own desire to kill pretty girls who might catch John’s eye (he’s especially fond of Vicki), tying audience stomachs in knots as Evelyn devotes herself to madness. One kills because of dark desires, the other to please. It’s like being hypnotized by gushing blood after grabbing a thorned rose, ignorant to suffering under the guise of togetherness.
Emma Booth and Stephen Curry are astounding as Young’s titular “hounds.” The way in which Stephen presents John’s OCD makes him seem so mild-mannered, only to then let on how second-nature his hobby has become. This helps Booth seem even more insane, as she’s so easily coerced into caring for John’s teenage victims (bathe them, cover tracks). They’re both caught up in these monstrous lies, but neither garner sympathy for two disturbed individuals. Romantic heights plateau when John gets his excitement from new playthings, as Evelyn performs fellatio while her aroused lover stares into the eyes of a strung-up schoolgirl. It is, in a matter of so many words, provocatively f#*ked on artistically savage levels. Chilling, devilish and made from picket-fence nightmares. Two roles I’m surprised either actor could recover from.
Ashleigh Cummings stands her ground as Vicki, succumbing to a victim’s mentality with survivalist ambition. Self-humiliating acts are the only way to combat John’s advances, while Evelyn’s judgment is clouded by Vicki’s manipulation. Cummings exudes a physical exhaustion but always keeps fighting. It’s almost as if Vicki can hear her mother’s frantic cries, helping her through another day of abuse. We feel for Vicki, nervous that she’ll finally hit a breaking point that spells dismemberment and body bags. Like John will lock the door, and it’s the last time we’ll hear her deafening screams for help. Evelyn points out that if Vicki just stayed home, her fate could have been avoided – and man, given the heartbreaking family dramatics already endured by this point, Cummings’ dead gaze is validated even further.
If all serial recreations were this commanding, I’d be a much bigger fan of the genre. Hounds Of Love cultivates invasive performances, unsettles nerves and has audiences chewing nails down to cuticle nubs without noticing. We’re talking clutch-a-loved-one, lock-your-doors good. Ben Young imprisons innocence and beats comfort to an unrecognizable low, spoken like a devil in wolf’s clothing. Vileness is understated and pacing is damn-near perfect, whispering this false sense of neighborhood charm. Much like The Snowtown Murders, Hounds Of Love explores the dangers of charisma and importance of love – as intriguing as it is soul-baring.
Hounds Of Love is as good a serial horror scenario that you'll find in any true-crime catalog.