HOUNDS OF LOVE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ben Young

Stars: Stephen Curry, Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Susie Porter, Harrison Gilbertson, Damian De Montemas.

Australian filmmakers have produced some tough, gritty uncompromising crime dramas in the past, with films like Romper Stomper, The Boys, Animal Kingdom, and Snowtown all exploring the darker side of the Australian male psyche. Although stylish and well made, they were all tough films to sit through. The new Australian drama Hounds Of Love is similarly an oppressive, uncomfortable and challenging film to sit through. Indeed, its subject matter prompted walkouts during the premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival.

Perth, Christmas, 1987. Young girls are disappearing off the streets. Although authorities consider them runaways, the fact was that many of them had fallen victim to a pair of charming psychopaths in John and Evelyn White (played by Stephen Curry, from The Castle, etc and Emma Booth, from Glitch, Gods Of Egypt, etc), who kidnap them, hold them hostage and abuse them before killing them and burying their bodies in a forest. The latest victim is Vicki Maloney (played by Ashleigh Cummings, who we recently saw in the NZ drama Pork Pie). Vicki’s parents have recently divorced in rather acrimonious fashion. One day in an act of teenage rebellion she sneaks out of the house to attend a party after her mother (Susie Porter) forbids her to go. Along the way to her friend’s house she accepts a lift from the charming couple, who offer her some drugs.

She is eventually drugged, bound and gagged, and held captive for John’s perverted desires. Vicki tries to drive a psychological wedge between John and Evelyn while she tries to find a way to escape their clutches. Meanwhile her mother desperately tries to convince the local police that Vicki is not a runaway. She insists that something bad must have happened to her.

Hounds Of Love is another thriller that probes beneath the seemingly normal and peaceful façade of suburbia. Loosely based on actual events, the dark serial killer drama Hounds Of Love is the debut feature for local filmmaker Ben Young, who hails from a background in music videos and commercials. He drew some from his mother, a writer of crime novels, but he also researched the history of real life serial killers.

This is a stylish and gritty psychological thriller in which very little of the actual violence is depicted on the screen. Young eschews gratuitous depictions of violence or sexual torture, but he suffuses the film with a palpable air of foreboding that will have many on the edge of their seats. Nonetheless the challenging subject matter still makes for a tough and disturbing film. This is more of a character study than a piece of exploitation cinema, but, boy, it is still pretty hard to sit through without being moved.

This is a lean piece of filmmaking. Most of the action is confined to the interior of the White’s house, which makes the film both claustrophobic and incredibly tense. But we get some respite when the film follows Vicki’s mother and her attempts to get anyone, including her ex-husband, to take her concerns seriously.

Young draws three solid performances from his key cast. Curry usually plays the nice guy, but he is cast against type here as a nasty, aggressively malevolent piece of work who assaults women and kicks dogs. He taps into something dark and menacing, and creates a very unsettling and unpredictable character unlike anything he has played before. But he also gives us a few glimpses of his charming, charismatic persona to explain why he can lure supposedly smart young girls into his car. A couple of scenes in which he is bullied also give us some insight into the nature of his character and explain why he acts in such a way.

In a role written with her in mind Booth is good as the more ambiguous Evelyn, who does everything she can to please the manipulative John, all in the hopes of winning back custody of her own children. Booth’s layered performance makes her Evelyn a more complex character. She comes across as insecure, paranoid, vulnerable, but also as something of a victim of sorts, more than just the typical “battered wife”. Rising young star Cummings is a stand out with the more emotionally and physical demanding role. Porter also brings a bit of depth to an underwritten role as Vicki’s mother.

The film has a great soundtrack that includes The Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin, Cat Stevens and Joy Division’s haunting Atmosphere, which enhances the tone of several scenes. Young and his cinematographer Michael McDermott often use extreme slow-motion shots of kids at play in the streets to create a disturbing sense of dread. McDermott also shoots many scenes in which the characters and action are framed by doorways. McDermott has a steady camera that doesn’t move much, and his camerawork will remind many of the work of Michael Haneke. Dan Luscombe, from the band The Drones, has composed a suitably eerie and unsettling score.

Hounds Of Love is another tense and hard-hitting hostage thriller, and makes a fine companion piece to Cate Shortland’s recent Berlin Syndrome.

★★★☆

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