Trigger warning: rape
To say I enjoyed Hounds of Love would be a slight misnomer. For sure, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking on almost all fronts, but its subject matter – the true-crime abduction, rape, and murder of young girls in Perth – makes ‘enjoyment’ a rather tricky subject to navigate. Ben Young has made a very different type of movie than we’re used to in this subgenre: unbearably tense, unbelievably stylish, and highly disturbing – it’s a triumph.
Emma Booth and Stephen Curry give remarkable turns as Evelyn and John White (based on real-life serial killers Catherine and David Birnie) in 1987 Australia. Together, they stalk their local neighbourhood, casually picking up young girls, taking them back to their unremarkable flat, then brutally murdering them (plus who knows what else) before dumping their bodies in the woods… As we witness this whole process, we simultaneously meet Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a young woman going through a difficult time as her parents split up. Naturally, the paths of these two groups of people converge, and Vicki ends up in a very sticky situation…
The way in which the pair approach her, with such a friendly manner, and a natural enthusiasm makes for particularly unsettling viewing. Even the more minute details, such as the child booster seat in the back of their car, are calculated to give the appearance of normality and trustworthiness to potential victims. They’re cheerful, funny, and genuine, offering warmth on a cold night. And it feels so real. Young’s point, it would seem, is that anybody could be hiding a dark secret, no matter how friendly they appear to be at first sight – and that’s an alarming thing to take heed of.
Never before, to my mind, have such horrific crimes been depicted with such banality and moral conflict. Everyone here, in their own way, is both the perpetrator and the victim. Evelyn may aid John in his killings, but she’s intimidated, abused, and controlled by him. John rapes, kills, and dominates the women in his house, but as soon as he goes out onto the streets, he’s bullied and taunted by other men. Even Vicki, despite being tied to a bed and covered in cuts and bruises, has spent time guilt-tripping her parents, sneaking out at night, and inflicting emotional violence on Evelyn in order to try and escape. When they’re not engaging in horrific acts, the couple can at times appear loving, and we even feel a little sorry for John when he’s being emasculated by the neighbourhood alpha-males. They couple get up in the morning, eat toast, and drink coffee – the fact that a half-naked young girl is tied up in the next room doesn’t seem to have any impact on them. The veneer of pristine suburban life reveals something rather ugly when washed away.
What are their motivations, we may ask? There’s no easy answer: John and Evelyn kidnap and murder girls just because. They’re not crazy, mad scientists; nor are they Dahmer-esque weirdos; they’re just a couple of dysfunctional people who also happen to be involved in some sick shit. The lack of a reason we can shrug off only serves to heighten how worrying Hounds of Love is and where its true power lies. What’re your neighbours getting up to behind closed doors?
The whole film is pretty damn tense. It’s not like the plot is especially bold or unpredictable, so when we’re waiting for the couple to strike, or when we’re anticipating the failure of early escape attempts, there’s a horrible teeth-gritting intensity that’s impossible to shake off. Of course Vicki is gonna be captured – but we’re hoping against hope that it’ll be without too much pain or injury. This sort of hopeless, nihilistic tension is something unique to Hounds of Love, and something that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
It helps that Young knows when to cut. Despite how distressing the film becomes, it’s never exploitative or, god forbid, titillating. Whenever extreme violence is carried out, it’s almost always offscreen. And when it’s not, it’s often photographed from 2 rooms away, through narrow doorways. What we don’t see is more disturbing than what we do – Young’s restraint is admirable. It really feels like a film about killers rather than a film about killings, which is what makes it so disturbing. In many ways, we can relate to this couple, and refusing to show them beating the shit out of a little girl really helps that unnerving feeling that they’re not exactly evil people, just damaged goods.
The most astonishing thing to note about Hounds of Love is the stylisation that’s gone into creating it. What could’ve been a gritty, exploitative mess is turned into a showcase of cinematography and sound design. Michael McDermott frequently employs ultra-slow-mo to depict ordinary events (a high-school volleyball game, gardening, skipping) in a sinister, otherworldly light. An almost pseudo-grindhouse look is used to conjure grainy, 70s flicks (the title sequence is a first-rate example of this). The dreamy, Vangelis-esque score also somehow manages to include Cat Stevens, Joy Division, and The Moody Blues in the most appropriate places, with a sequence set to ‘Knights in White Satin’ one of the single most remarkable moments on celluloid this year: horrifying, conflicted, and highly-stylised – but somehow entertaining.
Hounds of Love is a very unusual film… it’s a piece of work that, rationally, should be exploitation trash, but somehow has ascended to levels of auteurship nigh-on unheard of in this tired subgenre. Combining top-tier cinematography and sound design with oppressive tension, disturbing believability, and a truly nasty story, Ben Young’s debut feature is a true triumph. A true triumph, that is, if you have the stomach for it.
Featured image: The Guardian.