On the surface, writer/director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love sounds like all kind of horrible. Its sinister story follows Vicki, an angsty teen girl who’s abducted by a married couple that tortures, rapes, and plans to kill her. To survive, Vicki must keep her wits about her, and work discord into the fracturing relationship of the monstrous Mr. & Mrs. White. This Australian thriller sounds like the kind of movie that might revel in torture-porn-style in the suffering of a helpless underage girl. But Young rejects that ghoulish convention, and instead plumbs unexpected depths from his characters, turning this story of terror into one of the resilience of women, and the powerful bond of mothers and daughters.
Hounds of Love begins with a disturbing scene. Shot from the perspective of the leering eye of John White (Stephen Curry), the camera cruises the exposed thighs of romping school girls in slow motion, playing volleyball, oblivious to the wolf that lurks just outside the playground’s gates. The slo-mo is a tool used throughout the film, transforming mundane moments of suburban life—children frolicking in a sprinkler, dads mowing lawns, moms running in groceries—into menace. Because while they carry on in these mild moments, nearby a girl is chained to a bed, weeping for mercy and pleading for her life.
John and Evelyn White (Emma Booth) are introduced at the end of their killer couple routine. Once the girl’s body is dumped, a lingering shot of a faded MISSING poster cements the threat these two present. Then Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) crashes into the film, a frenzy of rebellion spurred by the divorce of her parents. After fighting with her harried single mother (Susie Porter), Vicki sneaks out to go to a party. But along the way crosses paths with a couple who offers her weed and a ride. Young plays out the foreboding of Vicki’s capture with a torturous precision, the audience helpless to do anything but watch as the girl falls into the carefully laid snare. Her scream sharp and terrible, our fear absolute.
Vicki is forced into the wicked routine of the Whites. She’s drugged, chained, tormented. She’s forced to write a letter home claiming she’s run away. By day, she’s bathed and fed by a cautiously caring Evelyn, who casually talks about how she’s working toward winning custody of her kids back from her ex. By night, John lurks, leers, and forces himself on the girl. But Young does not display graphic violence, or leer at Vicki in skeevy close-ups. Instead, the camera again and again focuses on the volatile glances shared between Vicki and Evelyn, chipping away at the latter’s steely facade. In doing so, the film poses the question we all wonder when considering murderers like the Ken & Barbie Killers: How can a wife help her husband rape and murder other women?
Booth is fearless in her portrayal of Evelyn, playing her as a ferocious bitch who barks off nosy neighbors, but also a heartbroken mother, who wants to nurture her victims as much as she wants them dead for luring the attention of her man. It’s complicated. It’s ugly. It’s mesmerizing. And Cummings proves a stalwart scene partner, screaming pleas through wet bulging eyes, and hissing real talk in a desperate whisper. In a bizarre but earned turn, this childless mother and lost daughter come to better see their own personal struggles through each other. When Evelyn taunts Vicki that she’d be safe if only she’d listened to her mother, it’s chilling. But beyond that, it’s striking that Evelyn is trying to teach this girl—who she plans to kill—a life lesson. And all the while Vicki is edging Evelyn to see John as not the only man who’s been kind to her, but a manipulator who treats her no better than the dog he kicks.
Yet this is not only Evelyn and Vicki’s journey, but also that of Vicki’s mother. While cops and her ex-husband huff that her daughter is just a rebelling runaway in no danger, Maggie’s intuition pushes her to pursue Vicki on her own. Her thread is short but substantial, peaking in a climax swelled with raw emotion. Amid all this, Young spares us any sympathy for John, allowing just enough screen time outside the house of horrors to paint him as a petty, small man who takes his revenge on the big mean world by playing god in his shitty, blood-stained home. (And props to Curry for playing a perfectly unnerving creeper.)
Hounds of Love is a terrifying edge-of-your-seat thriller spiked with sexual violence, animal abuse, and torture. But what sets it apart from the midnight fare it faces off against in festivals like SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival is that it has a barbed psychological thread throughout that pulls from such ripped-from-the-headlines horror a radiant string of hope and love. Throughout an eerie beauty is woven with soft colors, patient shots, and elegant slo-mo that captures small town Australia with a wan grace, which makes the violence hidden in it all the more unsettling. All this tangles to create a uniquely chilling and intense thriller that will catch you up, and won’t let go.
The Hounds of Love debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20th.