No faces, just skirts. Just hems, sweaty crevasses and fetishized joints. It’s the slow-motion perspective of a pervert driving by—the shadow of a girl’s hand passing over her body acting as a spectral extension of the gross dude’s desires.
This is how we’re introduced to the central couple in Hounds of Love: Leering, plotting. A visual trick the film employs to dupe us into their mindset is a fast tracking shot driving by while everything else is in slow motion. The lingering gaze of a lip-smacking predator is caught out of a car window. Cinematographer Michael McDermott is key in crafting the film’s off-putting perspective shots and dirty “gruburb” setting, telling us, before anything else happens, that something is amiss in ’80s suburban Perth.
A first victim is kidnapped, raped, killed and buried with such gleeful swiftness that we believe many more are to come. Nobody seems to be on the case of disturbed couple John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth). Their relationship—resembling those of upsetting character studies like Badlands or even Sightseers—is the fascinating core of an otherwise banal torture flick, mostly due to Booth’s incredible performance, her stressed, murderous loyalty so clearly deriving from fear, self-doubt and jealousy just by watching her body language and how she responds physically to Curry’s character when they’re together. He’s the cruel one—she’s just along for the ride.
But there’s no mistaking that, regardless, they’re in it together. The two need another victim after they dispose of the first and Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings, mostly just asked to scream) is the first and best teen to make poor decisions in their vicinity. Vicki’s parents are mid-divorce, she’s dating an older boy (who exists solely to set up an incredibly lame, impossibly obvious plot device later in the film…let’s call it Chekhov’s cipher), and she wants to party away her emotions.
She sneaks out of the house (in another noticeably pretty shot capturing both her escape and her mom’s trusting normalcy) and into the suburban night where the secretive goings-on may be teen parties or sex murderers. She lasts about as long as you might think before being abducted. What follows is a series of escalating tortures that lack suspense, scares or the intense interpersonal drama hinted at by Hounds of Love’s teasingly imbalanced relationship. Instead, the film is mostly filled with shots of poor Vicki tied to a bed screaming, her face at various pulpy stages, while the psychopaths exchange meaningful glances reminding us that we’re simply glad we’ve not been kidnapped and forced to watch this movie.
If your movie features anal rape, it better have a damn good reason; if your film features violence to dogs, it better have a damn good reason. Hounds of Love doesn’t. Its central antagonist, once the film’s decided it’s John by giving Evelyn a few sorrowful moments of sympathy, is briefly defined as an emasculated drug dealer taking his frustrations out on those over whom he has power. Ostensibly, it’s up to Vicki to find Evelyn’s humanity so she can escape. Yet, there’s more insight in an episode of Law & Order: SVU than in this film, whose most interesting character is also the serial killer’s most fascinating and masochistic victim: his wife. A scene where she takes herself hostage in order to get some real answers from John is the most powerful in the film because the stakes feel real and we’re actually interested in the outcome, whether it be truth or manipulation.
As could be expected, the film’s ending loses itself completely in violence. Rather than a foreshadowed explosion, Hounds of Love’s climax is like a gun backfiring. When the plot gets sillier rather than just duller, even that slow-mo loses its focus and formal meaning as it begins to recur randomly later in the film. All becomes self-interested, aesthetic noodling, nothing more. Similarly, Hounds of Love is a work of well-shined unpleasantness, interested in the killing parts rather than what those parts could mean.
Director: Ben Young
Writer: Ben Young
Starring: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas, Harrison Gilbertson, Fletcher Humphrys
Release Date: May 12, 2017
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter..