Ben Young’s blistering debut is a deeply sinister examination of oppression.
You aren’t going to “enjoy” Hounds of Love. Writer-director Ben Young – in his uncompromising feature debut – ensures this from the very opening frames. A deadened camera lingers in the stifling Australian air, ever-so-slowly droning past school gates where a gaggle of girls play netball. His lens is predatory; scanning the pack for the weakest link, the easiest kill. It’s Christmas time in 1987, and perverted serial-killing couple John (Stephen Curry), and Evelyn (Emma Booth) are patiently waiting for their next gift to be unwrapped.
Enjoyment is simply off the agenda, and rightly so, for Young’s introductory work is an inescapably bleak analysis of ominous crime, and patriarchal oppression; brilliantly capturing that feeling of cool upon the nape as you cautiously stroll late at night. Hounds of Love documents what goes on behind closed doors, and how the many façades which line our suburbs aren’t always quite so ordinary. Punctuated by a fiendishly smart soundtrack – atmosphere thick with the scratchy tones of nightcap vinyl – the film enables the audience to wallow in its realism, and that’s an impressively depressing place to reside.
The unlucky new member of the family is teenager, Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), whose choice to disobey mother and sneak out of the house is instantly regrettable. She’s lured in after an offer of cheap weed and a taxi pick-up (she’s supposed to heading to a party with friends). Soon enough, the cloyingly kind mood shifts, and Vicki is wrestled to a lonely bed; hands chained and mouth gagged to the romantic croons of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”. That track has a seriously different connotation now…
Preliminary reviews from multiple festivals, including Venice, Glasgow, and Tribeca, have frequently cited Young’s movie as one of the “hardest” watches this year. There’s no denying the sense of discomfort and anxiety throughout – in fact, a handful of scenes are truly nauseating with their chaffing severity – but Hounds of Love is far from unwatchable. Whilst a large portion of the drama unfolds in the dimly-lit, mutt-guarded perimeters of the home from hell, visual flair and artistic chords are everywhere. Young’s restraint inside makes every hallway feel longer; every bedroom seem stuffier. His limited environment has texture and character – much like those dwelling within. Frequently we return to the plywood-bordered window frames, or the firmly shut door, as if the idea of imprisonment needs further reinforcement. The truth is, it doesn’t, but an understanding of how seemingly mundane images can spawn provocative power is undoubtedly impressive for such an inexperienced filmmaker.
Australia has always maintained a prestigious outpouring of fingernail-dirt-filmmaking. Recent titles such as Wolf Creek (2005), and Snowtown (2011) are reflective of past chillers, including 1971’s you’ll-need-a-shower-after, Wake in Fright. Young’s movie nestles comfortably between the two: it has a modernistic approach to direction, character design, and sociosexual politics, yet bears an unmistakably rustic palette, pace, and tone selection. Periodically, Hounds of Love unfolds in yesteryear – and is apparently inspired by true events – but you always get the feeling that this is the everyday world-over, and such a notion is terrifying.
What’s most noteworthy in Hounds of Love however is the rooting of mothers and daughters; that unbreakable bond that outsiders looking in will never full understand nor appreciate. Whilst Vicki is the victim, Evelyn is a longstanding sufferer, too. She is so deeply and extensively abused by her husband, that she’ll participate in his homicidal activities – which invariably involve rape, and end with a body buried in the middle of a remote forest – just because she longs for his approval and devotion. Evelyn’s self-loathing obedience is often more distressing to witness that the heinous acts carried out across the film’s duration.
Rather suitably, the performance spectrum is volatile and scalpel-sharp. Booth is brilliantly intense as the psychologically battered consort, whilst Curry snarls with unpredictable menace as the instigator of terror. Copious praise however should be directed Cummings’ way, who is tremendous as the teen taken from the street. With very few credits to her name, she explodes onto the scene in a role of unforgiving nakedness. Her scream will quite frankly soil your psyche.
So no, you aren’t going to “enjoy” Hounds of Love, but you might just love its bracing intent, and disquieting horror. Take a mental note of Ben Young; his name will rightfully become household…
Hounds of Love opens in UK cinemas on 9th July.