Hounds of Love opens in extreme slow motion. At first, the group of teenage girls we’re focused on seem frozen like statues, but the basketballs they’re tossing are flying through the air with a kind of hypnotic, dreadful sluggishness. It takes a few seconds to realize they’re moving, and a few more to realize we’re spying on them. The camera (whipping around this tableau with far greater speed) is from the point of view of someone in a car who’s driving past and transfixed by the girls. This skin-crawling scene feels voyeuristic without showing anything beyond a schoolyard basketball game and primes the pump for the horrifying events to follow.
A well-made, restrained piece of horror cinema, Hounds of Love is nonetheless almost unwatchable—a serial-killer drama that keeps much of its murderous activity off-screen and leaves most of its details to the imagination. Of course, it’s all the more distressing as a result. The Australian director Ben Young’s debut film drew both praise and concern over its arguably exploitative content on its release in his home country last year, not least because the fictional events it depicts seem very similar to the real-life murders committed by David and Catherine Birnie. But if you can stomach its content, Hounds of Love is an undoubtedly effective work, an impressive calling card for a director sure to attract the eye of Hollywood.
Set in the ’80s, Hounds of Love follows John (Stephen Curry, a well-known Australian comedian) and Evelyn (Emma Booth), a couple who lure the teenaged Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) into their home with the promise of drugs and seize on her obvious alienation from her parents (who are in the midst of a divorce). They spike her drink, tie her to their bed, and the torment begins—some of it psychological, but much of it physical, though Young avoids depicting the violence whenever he can. The director focuses instead on racking up the tension and slowly unfolding new layers of John and Evelyn’s relationship, where the volatile John is the domineering force.
The couple aren’t criminal masterminds, but unsophisticated predators. That alarming opening scene (they’re the ones driving by the schoolyard), which leads into their abduction of a previous victim, lays out their disturbingly simple methods (which might not be believable if it weren’t for the period setting in slightly more trusting times). Their abductees play an unspoken role in John and Evelyn’s relationship, but Young never puts all his cards on the table. Hounds of Love is designed to be frightening and remote; it knows that for the audience, trying to piece together whatever’s happening in between scenes is far more upsetting than actually witnessing it.
Vicki eventually understands that there are fraying threads in John and Evelyn’s partnership that she can tear at, and Hounds of Love becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse thriller, though so many of its plot twists are internal to the characters. The star of the show is Booth, an accomplished Australian actress who I knew best from comedies like 2007’s Introducing the Dwights and brief appearances in blockbusters like Gods of Egypt. She conveys Evelyn’s monstrousness as an unsettling blend of insecurity and cold-bloodedness, reacting to John’s orders and her own, largely unspoken, desires.
For all of Young’s restraint, Hounds of Love is still incredibly hard to sit through, both in its early scenes (where Vicki realizes the depths of John and Evelyn’s evil) and its latter half (where she tries to play the two characters off each other while keeping some kind of hold on her sanity). Young’s visual panache is a double-edged sword; it’s almost more uncomfortable appreciating his crisp framing and meticulous editing given the subject matter’s brutality. More lurid and straightforwardly entertaining works about kidnapping come to mind—M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, for example—but at least those had a cartoonish, genre-film vibe to them from minute one.
Still, Hounds of Love is not a flashy exercise in “torture porn,” but a quiet piece of storytelling that charts Vicki’s attempts to escape and the slow disintegration of John and Evelyn’s alliance. Young barely leaves their squalid home, and anytime he does (mostly to focus on Vicki’s mother, attempting to find her daughter), the tension quickly dissipates. This is a film that draws its power from the misery and hopelessness of a young girl’s imprisonment, a gaze into a void of evil that’s difficult to forget.