An outwardly normal suburban Perth couple who abduct, torture, and murder schoolgirls must face their funny games in debuting writer-director Ben Young’s genre-bending powerhouse thriller “Hounds of Love.” Brave audiences will be rewarded, if that’s the word, with a harrowing ride that morphs from discrete horror to probing character study and back again in a vivid yet admirably restrained 108 minutes. Look for strong word-of-mouth — both for and against — to propel this beyond festivals to specialized play.
It’s Christmastime 1987 in the sun-baked western Australian city as Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth, Stephen Curry) brutalize and kill a teenager in a discretely photographed sequence that reveals little blood but a chilling routine. They cruise the neighborhood, offer the victim a ride, then chain her in the guest room of their nondescript tract house. When they’re finished, John buries the body in a nearby wood while Evelyn enjoys a mid-afternoon nap.
Meanwhile, teenage student Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is reeling from the separation of her well-meaning but apparently incompatible parents, mom Maggie (Susie Porter) and noticeably more well-to-do dad Trevor (Damian De Montemas). When she acts out against her mother by sneaking away for a night-time party, Vicki is deceived by the Whites and finds herself trussed in that guest room.
From the beginning, John seems to take an unusual interest in this particular victim, which noticeably distresses his partner. Gradually, Vicki, as well as the audience, learn Evelyn’s had her children from another man removed from the house and that John, a dead-eyed control freak, may not have her best interests at heart and has bought her a large dog to delay kids of their own.
Though clearly traumatized by her ongoing ordeal, Vicki takes advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, including an escape attempt and a chance to persuade Evelyn of John’s deceit. A tense and plausible confluence of events abetted by Vicki’s boyfriend Jason (Harrison Gilbertson) and incorporating a visual joke lifted from “The Silence of the Lambs” brings things to a climax at once violent and cathartic.
Young seems to have based his fastidiously multi-layered script on elements of at least two real-life serial-killing sprees in Perth that affected him as a youngster, that of Eric Edgar Cooke, aka the “Night Caller,” and, more substantially, David and Catherine Birnie, instigators of the Moorhouse Murders — so named after the road on which they lived (Malcolm Street in the film).
Far from Michael Haneke-level lurid, the film generates a coiled depravity and almost unbearable tension from the determined tracking shots of cinematographer Michael McDermott and Dan Luscombe’s trance-like, Tangerine Dream-inspired score. Young also effectively deploys the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” Cat Stevens’ “Lady D’Arbanville” and Joy Division’s non-LP single “Atmosphere” — though not, tellingly, the Kate Bush song with which the film shares a title (never explicitly explained). Clayton Jauncey’s production design is detailed and evocative, keyed around a well-worn set of kitchen knives.
For such a bold film to work, the performances must be all-in, and the three leads are committed to Young’s vision: Booth (“Gods of Egypt”) is terrifyingly skittish, Cummings (“Tomorrow, When the War Began”) fearless, and Curry — who is, believe it or not, a popular Australian comedian — redolent of pure evil.
Funding organization Screenwest claims the film is the first to be developed, filmed, and posted entirely in the state of Western Australia. This bodes well for the local industry, as “Hounds of Love” is a calling card not soon forgotten.