HOUNDS OF LOVE
Starring: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, and Susie Porter
Written & Directed by: Ben Young
“If you loved me, you’d fucking kill her…”
True crime, high drama, and stylish horror filmmaking collide in 2016’s Hounds of Love, one of the major featured screenings at this year’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. Though released a few years back to some controversy, Hounds of Love displayed remarkable similarities to a real-life serial killer couple that hunted throughout Australia in the 80s. Ben Young’s script and finished product rises above cheap titillation and shocks to deliver an achingly human, shockingly restrained tale of love gone sour, anchored by brave performances and visually arresting direction. Staged almost like dreamy theatrical production, Hounds of Love is a must-see for horror fans of any stripe.
Though a fictionalized account of real-life killers David and Catherine Birnie, the detailing Ben Young injects into the film buoys the tension throughout its runtime. Like their real-life counterparts, John and Evelyn White (played with fraught humanity by Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) stalk their town, looking for teen girls to take and hold captive in their fortress-like suburban home. The couple commits all manner of atrocities to them before making them write a letter under duress and killing them with sleeping pills. After the couple intercept young Vicki (played with coy steel by Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party, the couple begin to come apart at the seams. This due to the increasing severity of their crimes and John’s boiling psychopathy.
Writer/director Ben Young has gone on record saying he researched up to nine murderous couples during the inception of this feature. It is rather hard to divorce one’s mind from comparisons to the Birnies especially if you have even a cursory knowledge of the case itself. But thankfully, Young’s script and direction keep the film from skewing too far into a lurid or exploitative territory, even with the clear parallels. This is, for my money, the real strength of the film.
Though it does have some truly upsetting subject matter and more than a few genuine shocks to deploy throughout it’s run time, Young’s script and direction take an almost documentarian direction to depicting the story. A marked and welcome change from some of the more in-your-face examples of Modern Australian horror like the stomach-churning The Snowtown Murders and the ultra pulpy Wolf Creek (both also based on a well documented Australian serial murders).
The best example of this would be the way Young and his cinematographer, Michael McDermot, stage most of the more violent scenes. They do so in a way that alternates between close up shots of certain gory details (a knife, Vicki’s eyes, etc. etc.) or longer ranged establishing shots. But never ONCE do they show a scene full out or linger too heavily on unpleasant details just for the shock of it. Better still, Vicki is never, EVER photographed as a sex object. Instead, she is fully and at all times filmed as a victim first and foremost, another refreshing change from the usual fare we get from stories like this.
Now, I know a certain super gross subsection of the horror audience might call this a cop out but for me. However, it really added to the human element of this story and let me, as an audience member, know that even though Young was really aiming to scare me (and he did, several times), he wasn’t going to do so on the back of his female lead or use easy outs just to sell the horror.
And in doing so, he must have built up a major rapport with his core cast, because they consistently bring it from start to finish. Emma Booth and Ashleigh Cummings get to spend the most amount of time on screen together. Both of them are absolutely magnetic with one another as Booth plays the slow. Yet the Stockholm Syndrome’d unraveling of Evelyn in the face of true horror. Cummings’ Vicki pokes and pries at her armor, using her recently upended family life at home to find common ground with the killer.
Both women are absolutely astounding and even if the movie around them was a bust they would be more than worth your attention. Stephen Curry’s John is a bit more unhinged than his partner. That doesn’t make his performance any less of a marvel. He switches from oily charm to pure unleashed id at the drop of a hat, Curry’s efforts are a bit broader than the women’s here. He stands as the perfectly hateable wild card for this dangerously watchable cast of characters.
Armed with realism and theatrical style, Hounds of Love is a triumph of horror filmmaking. One that aims for a grounded, more intimate approach to it’s awful and at times gut-wrenching subject matter. Ben Young might be moving onto bigger things having starting working with Netflix with much higher budgets, but Hounds of Love shows that he started an empathetic and self-aware director. One that wasn’t afraid to stick to his guns and deliver a more nuanced and less exploitative take on the monsters that live next door. Don’t let the “gory” and “disrespectful” reputation of this film fool you. Hounds of Love is a refreshingly restrained but still damn effective slice of psychodrama.