Director: Ben Young
Stars: Emma Booth, Stephen Curry, Ashleigh Cummings
The world outside is subdued. It’s half-asleep. Practically comatose. Director Ben Young shows us this with scattered use of stylish, aesthetically pleasing ultra-slow motion. Girls play netball in suspended animation or suburban sprinkler systems erupt droplets that might never land. That’s how it seems to Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry), a couple who live a heightened existence. This is Young’s entry point into their perspective on the rest of us. Compared to them, we’re barely there. Not really real at all.
Hounds Of Love, set in Perth, Australia in 1987 is a raw, brutal but chillingly believable depiction of a murderous couple. Serial killer couples are a great oddity; a seeming mathematical improbability, but Young explores the grotesque reality of how a situation might exist and sustain itself. John is the killer, the one with an insatiable psycho-sexual fetish that needs quenching. He likes to chain women to the bed, rape and torture them. He’s a human predator but also a joke to his peers. Quite often a film of this nature would be content to spend its time on this and this alone, but here Young also intrudes on the motives behind John’s enabling and supportive partner Evelyn; a woman who presents herself as aroused by and thankful for her husband. With economy Booth evokes a character haunted by her own low self-esteem who feeds on the approval of her partner. He trusts her to supervise the young women that they capture together. He provides her a sense of purpose. She’s a willing accomplice, even as she feels jealous of the victims who steal John’s attention from her. He does what he does and she gets high in the next room.
Young is agonisingly comfortable keeping us waiting. Though the film’s score thrums away, we are subjected to inaction. In more traditional horror fare we’d spend time with John. We’d be a sickened voyeur of his actions. Here, Young often leaves us outside of these events. We accompany Evelyn in guessing. It’s restless, itchy.
Hounds Of Love documents their capture of precocious teen Vic (Ashleigh Cummings); their latest ‘guest’, lured into their home with the promise of a pissant drug transaction. Vic’s mother Maggie (Susie Porter) tries to encourage police interest in her suspect disappearance, but her frets aren’t taken seriously.
Even on the odd occasion that we do visit John when he is spending time with Vic, it is Vic’s gaze we are more commonly invited to share, trying to guess the significance of ornaments on shelves in her prison as much as the unknowable reasons for her torment. John’s psychology isn’t taken for granted, but Young understands that through experience in this often tired genre we can piece it together ourselves as we wish; the women are far more interesting.
So there’s the relationship between Evelyn and John and John’s relationship to Vic, but also the relationship between Vic and Evelyn. Vic pries into Evelyn’s repressed ability to empathise, asks her to question her responsiblity in these crimes. It’s her only available survival tactic within the house. Evelyn reacts against this, eager for John to get things over with so that Vic’s presence – which she considers toxic – can be vanquished and ‘normality’ can return.
The actors all impress, but Booth impresses the most. It’s not a showboating performance but rather one that feels bravely lived-in, darkly explored and endured. A transformation of self. Her expression can be blank but telling for its blankness. At other times she presents Evelyn’s tilts into melodrama or hysteria as pitiful requests for affection. She is manipulated by John, but also compliant with that manipulation, aware of it but complicit in sustaining the fantasy for fear of ending up with nothing. John has removed the outside world from her viable options.
Early aerial shots show John and Evelyn prowling the suburbs in their car, we identify where their house is in an unassuming neighbourhood. Through the rigor of depicting this behind-closed-doors nightmare, Young provokes us to wonder about our own neighbours. And while the likelihood of anything this monstrous occurring just a few doors down is infinitesimal, this provocative Australian director expertly picks a familiar scab; we don’t know who other people are, and other people have the potential to be terrifying. And, even more worryingly, so do we.
The Kate Bush song of the title doesn’t make an appearance. The era’s prime for it, but its John and Evelyn that Young is referring to here. For all their wretchedness, his film is imbued with a disquieting sensitivity for the couple. That such hopelessness exists to create minds that find passion in this dark? Still, you’ll probably not hear “Knights In White Satin” in quite the same way again.