HOUNDS OF LOVE: Queasily Effective, Genre-Defying Horror
[Published at Film Inquiry] Brace yourselves, for Hounds of Love is the most terrifying torture porn film since the genre’s inception. Writer and director Ben Young, a Perth, Australia native, understands nuance, leaving most of the events that take place throughout the film implied. Young’s awareness of the horror genre, nauseating building of suspense, and ability to keep the viewer guessing until the film’s final moments are remarkable for a feature film debut.
Stephen Curry, Emma Booth, and Ashleigh Cummings give committed performances, disappearing in their characters and the secluded setting that Young creates. This is a warning: this film does not contain explicit images, but it may shock and disturb viewers to their limits. I’ve seen every entry into the horror genre, from The Last House On The Left (1972), to Cannibal Holocaust, Ichi The Killer, Irreversible, and everything in-between, and viewing Hounds of Love is a truly emotionally trying experience on par with some of the most disturbing horror films out there.
However, there is an unusual depth to and surprising payoff at the end of Hounds of Love that elevates its subject matter. If you can brave the storm, there is sunshine on the horizon, though it barely shines through in this grisly tale of suffering and survival.
Less Is More
With Hounds of Love, Young utilizes the setting to maximum effect. The film takes place on the rural outskirts of Perth, the most isolated city in the world, in 1987. Young establishes a quiet community that keeps to itself, including members of the inadequate and aloof law enforcement, making it prime territory for our Bonnie and Clyde-esque sexual assailants, Evelyn (Booth) and John (Curry), to wreak havoc as they please.
From the film’s opening shots of uniformed schoolgirls playing volleyball, to various filler shots of increasingly younger children playing in sprinklers, at parks, and on lawns as the murderous duo stalk the town, Young uses hyper-slow-motion, dragging out the otherwise harmless images outside the context of this film to unsettle the viewer. A few images of bloody clothes, signs of struggle, the couple’s hounds chewing on alarmingly large bones, and the digging of what one can only assume is the grave of an unfortunate victim, sets the tone for the slow-burning buildup to the film’s intense climax.
Young never falters from this minimalist approach. Although there are disturbing scenes of abuse, the assault scenes are filmed either from a distance, out of focus, or just out of frame. In doing so, the groans and blood-curdling screams of Vicki are amplified significantly. With the help of sound editor Glenn Martin’s emphasis on bringing important background noises to the forefront, Young only implies what horrors Vicki endures, daring the viewer to go to the darkest places of their imaginations.
Cinematographer Michael McDermott deserves considerable credit for accentuating the decade of the ’80s. In post-production, McDermott adds a sepia-like hue to filter the the color palate of the film, creating a more vintage, rustic vibe. Much like what Michael Andrews did with Donnie Darko, Hounds of Love composer, Dan Luscombe, uses ’80s instruments such as pitchy synthesizers, repetitive booming base, alternative percussion rhythms in the background, and eerie background vocals.
Furthermore, the soundtrack choice is paramount in keeping the foreboding tone consistent, from a haunting rendition of the Christmas staple, Carol of the Bells, to the most terrifying use of Moody Blues’s Nights in White Satin to date in a film. The viewer will likely never think of the latter song the same way again.
Two Victims, One Predator
Vicki has no choice but to use her mind to outsmart the duo. She sees through Evelyn’s tough exterior, playing to her weaknesses of possessiveness and jealousy. And so, a dynamic between Vicki and Evelyn develops as the film unfolds that adds a layer to Hounds of Love that is sorely missed in the torture-porn genre: it allows Young to focus mostly on the emotional trauma of being a victim of abuse. Booth and Cummings both give sensational turns.
Curry could have easily played John as a one-dimensional psychopath, but Young’s script fleshes out a tortured person without pushing the audience to sympathize with him. Curry switches from cunning smooth talker to erratically emotional in a heartbeat, playing off of Booth’s commitment with ease. Their bickering hints at their tumultuous past together, making the power struggle between John and Evelyn both entertaining and horrifying to watch.
It’s not common for a film to explore both the captors and captures’ viewpoints to this extent in a torture-porn film. It is this character development that adds a surprising emotional depth that comes to a head in Hounds of Love’s third act. There is a silver lining in the end, one that feels incredibly earned.
Viewers Who Endure Will Be Rewarded
The ending of Hounds of Love will leave viewers speechless. Young packs a lot of confrontational and difficult subject matter to digest over the film’s 108-minute run-time, but thankfully there is a satisfying resolution. Can Vicki persuade Evelyn to see the truth of John’s nature and what she’s become? Will her family find her? Either way, Vicki will likely have to spend her entire life trying to overcome the events that she endured.
Young has an aptitude for nuanced and reserved filmmaking, especially concerning his approach to violence, but Hounds of Love is ultimately most effective when it focuses on Vicki and Evelyn’s respective journeys of survival. It’s difficult to imagine how one can endure the assault and emotional devastation that Vicki does, but human beings overcome it everyday. Ultimately, underneath the taut exterior and dark subject matter, Hounds of Love is about the resilience of the human spirit.
Did you make it through Hounds of Love? Did you think it was inventive, or more of the same seen throughout the torture porn genre? Do you see a promising future for Ben Young as a filmmaker?
Hounds of Love was released in theaters and on demand in the US on May 12.