If the thought of Dale Kerrigan from The Castle as a sexual predator and serial killer is likely to mess with your head, or break your heart, Hounds of Love is probably not for you. Perhaps best known for his comedic turns in movies (The Nugget, Take Away) and myriad television performances, Stephen Curry has proven himself equally adept at drama (The Cup), although never before with a character quite as dark and disturbed as the manipulative, malevolent John White. Written and directed by first-timer Ben Young, Hounds of Love delves into the dark underbelly of Australian suburbia as White and his wife Evelyn (a de-glamorised Emma Booth) prey on teenage girls with most sinister intent.
It is 1980-something in the suburbs of Perth where John and Evelyn prey on their victims, of whom there have been several prior to the series of events to which we become privy. Evelyn is a much more reluctant participant than her husband – her motivation resting on her desire to please him rather than the type of perverse pleasure that he draws from the encounters – but given it is only her involvement that enables John to access to the young women he keeps confined to a boarded-up bedroom in their otherwise unremarkable house, her culpability cannot be dismissed even though Young pitches her as a victim. The director has pointedly contended that, whilst the film has been marketed as such, he doesn’t see Hounds of Love as a horror film and, whilst that is a reasonable assessment, he does rely on the conventions of the genre, most noticeably the way in which the young victims are presented as being responsible for the horrors that subsequently befall them. The film opens with John and Evelyn watching a group of girls playing netball – a scene that plays out in agonising super slow motion – before they lure one of them into their car under the pretext of a lift home. Whilst we don’t learn of the fate of this particular young woman until later in the piece, it is the next victim around which the story revolves. .
Vicky Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) splits her time between her wealthy easygoing doctor father Trevor (Damian de Montemas) and her much more circumspect mother Maggie (Susie Porter), with whom she enjoys a somewhat strained relationship. When Maggie forbids Vicky from attending a party, she does what any self-respecting teenager would do and sneaks out regardless. Now, of course, such an act of defiance cannot go unpunished and, soon enough, Vicky finds herself bound, gagged and subject to all manner of deprivations. In the sanctity of his home, John is a brutish, manipulative psychopath, yet when he ventures outside, we discover that he is an object of ridicule in the neighbourhood and subject to bullying at the hands of the local drug dealer. The worrying thing is that this is almost offered as an excuse to justify John’s abhorrent behaviours. Furthermore, Young presents the indifference of John and Evelyn’s neighbours as being complicit in the horrors that Vicky (and those before her) endures, the specifics of which are easy enough to imagine even though they are never shown.
Curry and Booth are eerily effective in the leads, although almost everybody suffers at the hands of a screenplay that lacks clarity and a narrative that doesn’t always follow a logical trajectory. There is plenty of tension in the final moments though as a three-way stand-off develops inside the house as Maggie and Trevor search desperately for Vicky sans any assistance from the police, who have declared Vicky’s disappearance (and those of all the missing girls whose pictures adorn the walls of the police station) as an act of teenage rebellion. Cinematographer Michael McDermott captures the tedium of Australian suburban life to great effect and the design team has deftly recreated the hideousness of 1980’s design and style. An ugly and uncomfortable movie despite Young’s efforts to spare us the gory details, Hounds of Love suffers from its desire to elicit sympathy for two particularly nasty predators.