From the opening frames of HOUNDS OF LOVE, writer/director Ben Young wants you to be uncomfortable. An extreme slow-motion pan across schoolgirls playing sport, a virtual freeze-frame shot to ominous music, sets the voyeuristic tone of this claustrophobic nightmare. It’s never easy viewing, but the skin-crawling normality that these characters apply to suburban mayhem will get under your skin.
Set in Perth, Western Australia during December 1987, seventeen year old Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is heading out to a party when she is lured into the home of serial killer couple John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth). As a series of humiliating tortures and ultimately death await her, she begins to view the power dynamic between the couple as something she can leverage to win her freedom.
HOUNDS OF LOVE plays in the borderlands between anticipation and horror. By the time Vicki is pulled into the White’s web, we have already formed an opinion on the horrors they are capable of based on nothing but the fetishisation of objects and blood splatters. There’s a constant threat of foreboding underneath the eternally bleak outlook on the White’s domestic ‘bliss,’ as “Nights in White Satin” by Moody Blues disturbingly peppers the soundtrack. Everything is designed to make the White’s actions ordinary, such as their ritualised breakfasts, with Evelyn presenting John with evenly spaced pieces of toast.
Yet it’s also an undeniably difficult film to watch. Young uses familiar tropes to batter the audience into false hope, from a thwarted escape attempts to tense stand-offs with angry neighbours. The means of redemption is telegraphed early on, so some of the psychological cat-and-mouse games are just going through the motions. Even so, an especially icky sequence shows us very little as the pulsing soundtrack is shut off by a scream and a slammed door. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Australia’s similarly themed Snowtown, it’s what we don’t see that horrifies us.
Booth’s (Gods of Egypt) award-worthy performance is a revelation, from the impossible to read blank stare she presents as the opening titles drops, to the gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster she also goes through. She is might be psycho-adjacent, but as her paranoia grows over John’s feelings for his prey, we feel for her as well. She’s a well-rounded character, a victim just as much as Vicki, and hints about her estranged children point towards John’s dominance. Even John gets his moments of pathos, bullied by the local drug dealers in the one part of his life he can’t control. Indoors, he is every bit a homegrown screen villain that consciously pushes against his past personas.
Which makes the final act something of an anti-twist. As the climactic scenes plays out over Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” an otherwise white-knuckle scene gives way to expectations and an anti-twist. Despite this, HOUNDS OF LOVE unquestionably grabs our attention and holds it in place for the duration, and while it might be difficult to stare directly at it the whole time, it’s hard to walk away in silence.