By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings and Stephen Curry
Written and directed by Ben Young
Filmbuff/Gunpowder & Sky
Australian cinema has a strong track record with true-crime dramas, but perhaps none has delved so deep into the dark, depraved side of human nature like HOUNDS OF LOVE. A remarkably bold yet controlled achievement for first-time feature writer/director Ben Young, it casts such a disturbing spell that it definitively crosses genre borders to become a horror film as well.
Right from the opening scene, Young creates a feeling of unease as the camera ogles a group of volleyball-playing high-school girls, and it’s quickly revealed that this is the point of view of a couple sitting in a nearby car. When the teens disperse and the two voyeurs offer one of them a ride, we know no good can come of it, even if we don’t see the upshot. The setting is the lower-class side of Perth, Australia during Christmastime, though the summery vibe is all of a piece with the way Young upends any potential for good cheer.
The movie’s young heroine, Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), is dealing with a broken home and has a fractious relationship with her mother (Maggie Carter). When she sneaks out of her bedroom one night to go see her boyfriend, she winds up in the midst of far worse dysfunction—a captive of local couple John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth). Now chained in another bedroom, she’s subjected to increasingly brutal treatment that can only have one eventual outcome, and tries desperately to exploit the tension between John and Evelyn to save her own skin.
And there’s plenty to exploit: John has a manipulative hold over Evelyn, who has separated from her own husband and has a daughter she doesn’t see—a parallel with Vicki that’s among the many touches that make HOUNDS OF LOVE so much richer than your typical captivity-terror film. The movie is full of telling details—cigarette butts neatly lined up in an ashtray, for example—and Young establishes a depressed suburban world defined by an ever-revolving cycle of violence and mistreatment (John himself is bullied by local drug dealers). In collaboration with cinematographer Michael McDermott and production designer Clayton Jauncey, the writer/director creates a visual milieu in which the banality of the White house only enhances the shocking nature of the acts committed within it, the sight of a forest with a narrow road surgically cutting through it immediately conjures up nervous anticipation, and even the lens flare from distant car taillights takes on a menacing air.
HOUNDS OF LOVE, however, truly belongs to its lead actors. Cummings’ Vicki is not your typical tortured victim, or even your typical resourceful one—she’s a complicated, empathetic young woman whose frustration over her home life and desperation/survival instinct while in John and Evelyn’s clutches are palpable and compelling. Curry, better known in Australia for comedic roles, makes John a quietly terrifying sadist who has his vicious practice down to a system, which makes him all the more frightening. And Booth, whose Evelyn suffers her own abuse at John’s hands but has no compunction about inflicting even worse on their captives, somehow maintains a touch of sympathy for her. She’s become trapped in the aforementioned cycle, the damage has become irrevocable and the fact that she has devolved into monstrousness is both chilling and deeply sad.
All three performances are fascinating, and in tandem with Young’s artistry, they transform a scenario that could have been repellent into a transfixing experience. HOUNDS OF LOVE was inspired by actual cases in Australia, and in the realm of fact-based fright cinema, it achieves a level of brutal, character-driven tension that recalls no less than HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.