I want to get this out of the way first. There is a Cat Stevens song in this movie too. It is not as poignant a moment as when one is used in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, but I noticed it.
That out of the way, Hounds of Love is the most viscerally disturbing movie I’ve seen this year, in spite of not showing anything truly graphic, rather, taking advantage of just implications. First time director Ben Young is smart enough to know you don’t have to actually show rape; showing a girl chained to a bed and bloodied sheets gives enough for the audience to put together themselves. Much of what actually disturbs in this movie is character-centric rather than action-oriented. Hounds of Love gives its villains so much room to become monsters that are also so scarily human in their monstrosity.
The plot is simple enough where in another context it could’ve been the basis for a dark comedy: Australian teenager Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is kidnapped by a couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evie (Emma Booth); and to escape, she must play off of Evie’s insecurities about her relationship with John. Essentially, Vicki has to help Evie escape from her toxic relationship with a serial abuser, but instead of being roommates from college or something like that, Evie kidnaps and rapes Vicki as she’s done to many other young women in the past.
What’s as smart about the movie as it is completely fucked up is that every inch of sympathy the film ekes out of Evie becomes a yard of disgust for John. John may be the most vile movie character this century so far, managing to check off every box of sub-human trash. He’s a kidnapper, rapist, physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend, and even kills animals. And from the little humanization the movie affords John, we learn that all of his repugnance stems from his own weakness and insecurities. Everything in the movie happens because John wants to feel like a big man, and Curry and Young translate the character’s utter deplorability perfectly. You will capital-H Hate John.
His other half, Evie, only comes off better by comparison because John continually lowers the bar for her. Thankfully, Young never excuses her complicity in Vicki’s kidnapping and torture, but does sympathize with her as being a victim of John’s emotional and physical violence as well. She met the older John as a teenager herself, and has been trapped by him ever since, with him using his validation and the promise of getting custody of her children as the carrots. While John is evil to the core, Evie was broken into becoming a monster. She throws herself at John, trying to steal his attention from the young girls she kidnaps, participating in his darkness because that’s how she believes she’ll make him love her. She’s no less a monster than John, but she’s more immediately pitiable, more identifiably broken.
Rounding out the trio is Cummings, who plays Vicki as equal parts vulnerable and resourceful. Again, Young smartly plays audience expectation against itself with her introduction. She’s as dumb a teenager as most movie teens, sneaking out at night to go to a party and accepting a ride from two strangers when they offer her beer and weed. But Young humanizes her, too: her sneaking out is a response to her parents’ recent divorce, and she only accepts the ride after walking alone at night and being catcalled by much more aggressively scary boys.
As much as some viewers will want to blame her for getting kidnapped, Young deflates their arguments relatively simply: she’s young and she’s scared, and by using the rest of the run-time to deliver torture that nobody deserves, no matter what their dumb mistake was.
Young also allows Vicki to be incredibly smart, showing her as incredibly observant even under immense duress. She uses every opportunity to plan for escape, sending coded messages in ransom letters Evie makes her write, quickly keying into Evie’s insecurities, and using every free moment to scope out possible exits from the house she’s locked up in. Cummings plays Vicki’s timidity as equal parts frightened and cautious. She has no idea what exactly she’s in for, but she endures, she watches, and she plans.
And also, Cummings has one hell of a blood-curdling scream. Her scream alone is all you really need to understand the magnitude of horror that Vicki faces, and is the most striking sensory element of the entire movie. It’s a movie-making scream.
And first-time director Ben Young shows as much skill with the camera as he does with his actors, which is apparent from the movie’s first shots. The film opens on a slow pan across the playground of a girls’ school, lustily zooming up the tanned legs of the young girls in their knee-length skirts as they hop and play around. This pan immediately meets the eyes of John and Evie establishing them as beasts stalking their prey. We know without a single spoken word the predatory nature of these characters, and how they see young girls, quite literally, as things to be consumed.
This control over mood and narrative continues through the entirety of Hounds of Love, with Young able to convey important character details with only seconds worth of shots and barely any dialogue. One cut that goes from John patting down the dirt on a freshly dug grave to him leaning on his shovel tells us everything we need to know about his character for the entire movie. Also, Hounds of Love is the first movie in a long, long time where I actually had no idea how the climax would turn out. Off the top of my head, it’s the first movie I’ve watched in years where I legitimately did not know how it would end until it ended. By the movie’s climax, Young has shown us such depravity and violence that it’s impossible to tell what will happen, and what these characters are capable of, for better or for worse, and that is such a rare experience from a movie these days. The tension of those final moments – that’s actual, literal, English 101 definition of climax – not just a spectacular action sequence, but a legit “will it or won’t it?” moment; live or die; yes or no.