Ben Young's brilliant debut

Hounds of Love

Written and directed by Ben Young

Rated MA 15+, 104 minutes

4 stars

Violent crime in Australian cinema, when it’s really nasty, is usually pegged to a true story. It almost needs to be for us to stomach it. Snowtown was about the bodies-in-barrells killers in Adelaide; Animal Kingdom was a lightly fictionalised story of a real Melbourne crime family. The Boys was based on the Anita Cobby killers in Sydney.

Hounds of Love brings Perth into this ugly fold – beautiful, sunny, dull old Perth of the late 1970’s. Men in stubbies and sideburns mow their lawns and wash their cars in endless rows of Australian suburban ugliness, while crimes of unspeakable horror take place in the neighbour’s house. ‘The Australian Ugliness’ was the title of Robyn Boyd’s 1960 book attacking Australian architecture, and there’s an unspoken connection in Ben Young’s first feature. The depravity is partly suburban too, connected to the banality.

A young couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth), abduct young women from their own neighbourhood streets. They take them home, torture them and John eventually kills them and buries the bodies in a state forest, usually about a week later. We understand all this in the first ten minutes, which sets up a sense of dread. When we see them go out in their tan Holden station wagon, we know what’s coming.

Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a wilful 16-year-old, sneaks out of her mother’s house at night. She is angry at mother Maggie (Susie Porter) for leaving her dad. The abduction relies on psychology: the victims get in the car willingly, when they see there is a woman. Evelyn does her part, by guessing what each girl might be looking for. I’m guessing that’s part of the reason for the period setting: Young wants us to think people were more innocent in the late 1970s (debatable), or at least more gullible.

Hounds of Love is not based on a true story, although it feels like it is. Ben Young, who grew up in Perth, read about a number of different cases, inspired by his mother’s work as a crime writer. He offers us a sophisticated guess at the dynamics that might produce a pair of suburban killers like John and Evelyn and it’s compelling, partly because they see themselves as ‘normal’. Outside the house, John is a weedy guy who’s easily intimidated by local toughs; inside the house he’s a master manipulator of Evelyn’s vast well of loneliness and insecurity. The social workers have taken her kids away and she’s desperate to get them back; at the same time, she’s terrified that John will leave her.

When they abduct Vicky, Evelyn’s insecurities just get worse. She doesn’t mind him torturing and killing these girls, but she won’t have him fancying them. You think she’s prettier than me, she whines. In this small chink, Vicky sees her chance. She must coax Evelyn over to her side, before he kills her.

Hounds of Love is an accomplished, daring piece of work. It might easily have become exploitative, but Young walks a fine line. There’s very little actual depiction of violence, a great deal of implied violence. That makes it hard to watch at times, partly because of the truth of Ashleigh Cummings’ performance. But the violence is never the point. It’s partly a film about gender differences. Stephen Curry’s John is an empty shell of a man, a puny spirit who derives pleasure from cruelty. Evelyn on the other hand is like a great reservoir of need. She needs to be loved, even if it’s by this dark, slithering child-man; she’s willing to go along with almost anything in order not to lose him.

That makes the film into a twisted love story, which is a weird way to think about a movie with this much horror. Young wants to take us a long way – and he does. His control over his material is superb – from the brilliance of each performance, to the sustained terror, to the tense finale. It’s an auspicious debut.