By Jim Slotek
I was reminded recently by the Hot Docs feature 78/52 – about the influence of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho – that many still think they are explicitly shown a graphic, gruesome stabbing in it.
The power of implied violence has often seemed lost on subsequent generations of thriller/horror filmmakers, particularly during the “torture porn” years of Saw and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever).
But, in his stomach-knotting first feature Hounds Of Love, Australian filmmaker Ben Young shows he gets it. The film, inspired by the real-life Moorhouse Murderers in 1980s Perth, is the disturbing tale of a pathologically needy couple who kidnap and murder teenage girls. It’s a horrific story that relies on our minds’ eye to conjure up the worst details while it devotes itself to a portrait of murderous personalities.
The couple, Emma and John White (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry) is a composite of similar murderous duos Young researched worldwide – a list that undoubtedly included the Bernardos. Emma is a haunted woman who has lost custody of her children for reasons never entirely explained (but undoubtedly dire, given the traditional advantage of mothers in custody cases). The abusive John knows how to push her buttons, but is himself bullied by the local criminals who sense his inherent cowardice.
It’s a potentially incendiary mix that lies dormant until the couple kidnap Vicki (Ashley Cummings). A rebellious teen, contemptuous of her single mom, Vicki has snuck away to a party, is lured to the White’s home on the promise of a pot deal, is drugged and wakes up chained to a bed.
Understandably panic-stricken, she nonetheless channels her desperation by watching the Whites and playing on their insecurities and barely-concealed distrust of each other. It is a compelling display of resourcefulness from the least-empowered position imaginable, played against a countdown of what she knows will be her death.
Young literally raises the temperature throughout with his depiction of a sun-baked Perth, falling into disrepair circa 1987. The down-at-its heels suburban landscape is practically a character of its own.
Meanwhile, the acting threesome of Booth, Curry and Cummings is electric. Curry is actually an Australian comedian of note, which is a nice touch of casting, given the dark impulses he expresses here.
Counterpointed against the claustrophobic victim-versus-her-killers dialogue is a subplot from the outside of Vicki’s family that plays like an episode of Criminal Minds (minus any competent contribution from the Perth police, who are portrayed here as the least caring constabulary in the world). Their race-against-time sleuthing does bring an urgency to the movie’s final act (you ever notice on Criminal Minds, how they always manage to put the pieces together just as the latest victim is about to be gutted?).
An impressive debut indeed, Hounds of Love is a stomach-punch of a film that has not gone unnoticed to date - with raves from Venice and SXSW, and studio offers for Young, who’ll soon be directing James McAvoy in the sci-fi thriller Extinction.
Here’s hoping, with bigger budgets at his disposal, that Young retains his “less is more” touch.
Hounds of Love: Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Stephen Curry and Ashley Cummings. Opening May 12 at the Carlton Cinemas in Toronto and the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa.
Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.