Year: 2017
Director(s): Ben Young
Writer(s): Ben Young
Region of Origin: Australia

Rating: Unrated
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Digital, Color, 108 mins

Synopsis: A teen is abducted by a disturbed couple in the 80’s Australian suburbs.

Hounds of Love will make you sick to your stomach. Grounded in unflinching realism, it’s a film that chews you up and spits you out. This isn’t something you watch for a few twisted kicks, but rather a harrowing survival story with a rarely-seen perspective. Based on a true events, the film transcends genre, giving us a subversive tale about mothers, daughters and the ways that pure evil can hide in plain sight. That being said, the way this film makes us complicit, watching and engaging such despicable acts, won’t be for everyone. What makes it important, however, is that director Ben Young isn’t posturing or looking to shock for the sake of it – he’s giving us an honest look at how desperation and loss can feed the demons within each of us. From its brave performances, to Young’s restraint and smart minimalism, this film is the definition of horror, challenging, but with purpose.

In 1980’s Australia, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is an unsuspecting teen reeling from the separation of her parents. At odds with her mother, she sneaks out of her suburban home one night to attend a party. Enroute, a seemingly innocuous couple offers her some free weed, so long as she makes a stop at their home. The exchange plays out in a surprisingly believable way, but we can feel that something insidious is in the works. The couple, Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry) turn out to be kidnappers, abducting young girls together and submitting them to horrifying acts before ending their lives. Vicki is different, however, casting doubts upon Evelyn’s already fragile state of mind and setting off a series of events which will challenge her relationship with John and lead to an explosive conclusion.

The film’s twist is an early, subtle reveal, one that makes Evelyn out to be the story’s focal point, rather than Vicki. The latter ends up being a catalyst, but the plot’s heft is found with Evelyn’s crumbling psychological state, pitting her against tough choices and forcing the viewer to sympathize with someone who’s done horrible things. By giving us such an unexpected POV, Young subverts genre tropes and expectation at every turn, allowing the film to transform and shift thematically any time we’ve got it figured out. In creating a complex dynamic between captors and victim, there’s a raw spontaneity involved, exploring primal urges and the choices that can turn us into monsters. By turn, the story is also a stunning example of how the most unspeakable evil can be occurring right under our noses, with neighbors who can appear timid and reserved one moment, and savage beasts the next.

Also of note, is Young’s commitment to unflinching realism, making most of the film hard to watch despite almost all of its violence occurring off screen. It’s a testament to the way Young builds tension and character dynamics that makes this such an queasy watch, containing most of the story to the same 2-3 rooms with razor sharp focus and inescapable intimacy. Through it all, we feel as if this is something we shouldn’t be watching, even as we’re glued to the screen for every bitter second.

The three performances on display are a fierce triptych of swirling angst and desperation. As the true centerpiece, this is Emma Booth’s film, making Evelyn a complex character that we’re appalled by but strangely feel for. There is so much power through what she does, suppressing motherly instinct without missing a predatory beat. Evelyn is truly broken, and Booth makes every second of her journey feel earned and urgent. As Vicki, Ashleigh Cummings is what the film needs, with her most effective moments occurring in spurts and when we least expect. Even with a reduced role, Cummings makes her victim feel fleshed out, rather than a story element. By design, John’s character gets the least amount of screen time, but Stephen Curry gives it his all. Curry hones in on the film’s ideas of perspective, turning in a multi-faceted character who is different depending on who he’s with – he’s surprisingly vile in ways that disturb, yet can be fragile and vulnerable at the flick of a switch.

Hounds of Love feels original even if it’s playing with ideas we’ve soon a thousand times over. Young’s best asset is his keen focus and sense of realism, anchored by no-frills execution. Unlike most horror films, which are meant to be forgettable thrills, this movie takes its time, getting deep under our skin to probe the human condition. Anyone who can just walk away from this one unscathed is most likely dead, and if you can stomach what Young has got to offer, then you’ll find a fascinating dissection on the true face of evil, but also the singular bond between a mother and her children. Heavy stuff, but ideas that deserve conversation and this type of weight.

SG