Perth, 1987. Teenager Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out of her mother’s house to go to a party. On the way she is kidnapped by John White (Stephen Curry) and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth). Trapped inside their home, she finds herself at imminent risk of rape and murder. Her only chance of survival – if there is one – is to try and play her emotionally unstable captors against one another.
Western Australian director Ben Young makes his feature debut with Hounds of Love, a bleak, brutal thriller inspired by real-life events. It is technically superb, well directed by Young, and very well performed by its cast. Despite its modest production budget it has an extremely slick, hugely effective style to it. The opening scene, depicting teenage girls playing netball in extreme slow motion, is creepy in the extreme. Specific choices of camera angle and editing through the subsequent film emphasise its unsettling and confronting subject matter. This may be a small independent production, but it has a technique you’d expect from a film with 10 times the budget and from a much more experienced directorial hand.
It is also a tremendously difficult film to watch. There is a level of intensity operating here that makes everything seem a little too close to the bone, and a step too realistic. That is a good thing: we made entertainment out of misery so often that I think it’s beneficial now and then to have a film like Hounds of Love. It reminds us of what such terrible events would actually be like. Importantly it does this not through graphic shots of assault or abuse, but by the reactions of its protagonist to the threat of what may happen. It’s almost too tense to sit through.
The film draws its story and characters from real-life murderers David and Catherine Birnie, who in 1986 raped and murdered four Perth women before their intended fifth victim escaped their home and alerted the police. Hounds of Love adapts the Birnie’s crimes rather loosely, and conflates individual elements of different murders into one film-long ordeal, but for anyone familiar with the Birnie case it is all very familiar.
Ashleigh Cummings is excellent as Vicki. She plays her with determination and a strong will, but also a desperately upsetting panic. While terrible things happen in the film, it is the anticipation of those terrors that make them so powerful. Cummings’ performance dominates that anticipation.
Stephen Curry is chillingly realistic as serial rapist and murderer John White, however it is Emma Booth that is the genuine stand-out in this film. She plays a baffling yet captivating character. Evelyn is a mystery: why does she help John to rape and murder people? Why does she love him? There is a deep complexity to the character, with numerous layers and emotions playing all the time. It makes Evelyn both fascinating and horrifying. She’s a frightening puzzle in the form of a movie character. Booth’s performance makes her both sympathetic and disgusting in turn, and ultimately one of the most fascinating screen characters of the year.
Hounds of Love is a very strong and challenging thriller. It is absolutely not going to be the right kind of film for a wide variety of viewers; for one thing the level of violence against women is truly shocking, as I believe it should be given the subject matter. For those with a strong resolve for difficult viewing, it is an assured and profoundly affecting experience.