Perth, Australia, 1987. Teen Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), at odds with her mother (Susie Porter), sneaks out at night to a party, and is abducted by serial rapists/killers Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry). Vicki tries to survive by turning the meek Evelyn against her monstrous partner.
In a queasy prologue, set during a sweltering Australian midsummer Christmas, a teenager is sweet-talked into accepting a lift and a glimpse of bloodied sex aids signals this drama of everyday psychopaths will go all out to be uncomfortable yet compelling viewing.
Echoing recent Australian underworld dramas such as Snowtown and Animal Kingdom — with human predators roaming free in run-down neighbourhoods and couldn’t-give-a-shit cops fobbing off grieving, angry relatives by muttering that lots of teenagers run away from home these days — writer-director Ben Young has combined elements from several Perth true-crime stories, although he’s taken most from the rap sheets of married murderers David and Catherine Birnie.
The result is something more than its abduction-horror plot suggests.
It’s a shame Hounds Of Love is being released at a point where some viewers have started to baulk at more chained-up-in-the-basement movies. Though expertly written and acted, the film defaults to a couple of well-worn clichés — reminiscent of Mum & Dad, Chained, Captivity and others few would want to watch more than once. An escape attempt is thwarted as it comes too early in the film to pay off, and agony is further prolonged by the sort of hard-to-watch ordeal (very tactfully shot) which became over-familiar (and thus devalued) in the Hostel heyday of torture porn.
But in other way this plays against expectations. Rather than the basement cage in a remote house of most abduction movies, Vicki is chained in a prosaic back bedroom on a regular street, and the racket she raises often alerts nosey neighbours. Attuned to cracks in relationships from her parents’ break-up, she realises that the needy Evelyn (Booth), who has children that don’t live with her and dotes on a child-substitute dog, is exploited by her perverse, domineering, inadequate partner. A monstrous master in his own home, John (Curry) is a little fish in a bigger crime pond, taking frustrations out on his victims and his wife alike. Vicki sees an opening and plays on Evelyn’s insecurities with the stroppy teenager skill she has developed pushing her own mother’s buttons.
Like Daniel Henshall, who plays the serial killer in Snowtown, Stephen Curry is a comedian going straight with a heavy role and delivering a memorable portrait of an ordinary monster. What’s scary about John White is that his victims know exactly who he is and what he wants, but his wife lies to herself about it (pretending their racket is kidnapping for profit) until he crosses a line which makes Evelyn waver in her loyalties.
Emma Booth and Ashleigh Cummings are outstanding — in most films like this, female characters have to be foolish for the plots to work, but here we see why these intelligent women (Evelyn is unnervingly good at luring victims into the car) ignore their own best instincts to get into a position where the awful John can exploit or hurt them. Susie Porter is similarly strong as the fed-up mother who co-opts her estranged, much better-off ex (Damian de Montemas) into sleuthing around the neighbourhood when the authorities prove useless. The result is something more than its abduction-horror plot suggests.
Deliberately uncomfortable viewing, this is nevertheless a compelling exercise in gritty psycho-noir with outstanding performances and real dramatic weight. Director Ben Young is a name to watch.