❉ A horror film for adults, grounded in the uncomfortable reality of ordinary people doing unspeakable things.
John and Evelyn are not your typical Australian suburban couple; for a start, they abduct young girls, then rape and murder them.
It has been observed before that when it comes to horror, reality is always far more terrifying than any fiction. The events of Hounds of Love are not based on any real-life case, but on the other hand they clearly are: there’s nothing specific here to any particular serial killer, but the details are familiar from a number of sources. The world may have recoiled in horror at the atrocities committed by Josef Fritzl, but time, and other such incidents, would suggest that this is a far more common problem than we realise; how many more women are being kept prisoner in someone’s home?
John and Evelyn may kill their victims rather than keep them on as abused domestics, but their story too is an increasingly familiar one. Serial killers working in tandem may be a rarity, but an abusive relationship in which a completely subjugated partner, who is in many ways as much a victim as the youths on whom they prey, is something which is appearing in our newspapers with surprising frequency. Fred and Rose West may be the most famous for this, but they’re most certainly not alone.
All of this means that any film stepping in to such territory is going to make for highly uncomfortable viewing; it’s all very well when your serial killers are rampaging monsters who also happen to have sky high IQs (the audience love Hannibal Lecter because they can both look up to him by admiring his intellect whilst at the same time take comfort in the fact that they are better than him because they’re not cannibals) but the moment a horror film strays into real life it has to tread carefully for fear of offending. The audience, after all, doesn’t want to see something which hits too close to home.
Writer/director Ben Young has to navigate his subject very carefully, particularly as this is his first feature film. In other hands this could have gone horribly, horribly wrong; either by treating the subject too glibly, in which case any audience would take offence that the subject isn’t being taken seriously, or by taking the subject so seriously that any entertainment value is forgotten and the film becomes too unbearable to watch.
Young’s very mature script avoids this by flatly refusing to sensationalise any of the events that occur; John may be a monster, but the film refuses to treat him as anything other than a real person committing real acts. This makes the film frequently uncomfortable to view, although there is surprisingly little on display that is likely to offend – nearly all of the violence (and certainly any of the sexual violence) occurs off screen (which in a way makes it more disturbing, because the imagination is a powerful tool).
John is a fascinating character, all the more so because it doesn’t seem that Young understands him either; we know that John likes to kill people, but we don’t know why. In some respects we get to know a great deal about him, but in others he remains a mystery. It’s arguably John’s partner Evelyn that the film does better to analyse – we certainly have more backstory for her. As most of the film is told from the perspective of teenage victim Vicki, and as we only learn about John and Evelyn in her presence (even if for much of the film she’s chained to a bed in a nearby room) there’s only so much we can learn. It’s also probable that Ben Young himself doesn’t know why people would do what John and Evelyn do; it’s enough to know that there are people out there like this, people who do these things for real, which is where the real horror comes from.
Performances throughout are exceptionally strong, particularly Stephen Curry and Emma Booth as John and Evelyn. Curry may have a background in comedy, but there’s not a single shred of that in evidence here: John may be one of the least funny serial killers ever seen on film – we’re certainly some way from the reassuring safety of wisecracking maniacs that Hollywood has to offer. Curry’s performance is exceptionally good throughout, and John never becomes a caricature, he remains a credible threat. Emma Booth has slightly more to work with from the script (the backstory mentioned earlier; there’s far more work made in fleshing out her character and providing some kind of rationale for her acts) and makes the most of it, delivering a surprisingly moving and not entirely unsympathetic performance. Although both of these people are doing unspeakable things, no one could accuse the film of trivialising a serious subject, nor of shamelessly capitalising on it – this is grounded throughout, a horror film for adults.
That’s not to say that the film is perfect either; having eschewed melodrama or overt emotion for most of the running time the last act sees the film dive headfirst into both, with a finale that is both annoyingly predictable and also surprisingly manipulative. No spoilers, but the ending is far less accomplished than one would expect given the quality of the first two acts.
Perhaps that’s because Ben Young has set the bar so high with his work earlier in the film, or perhaps because the film refuses to play by the generic conventions of the horror film. Either way, the finale is both predictable and generic, which is particularly disappointing given how strong it had been up to that point. This doesn’t make the film any less worth watching (the performances are still very strong, it’s just something of a disappointment given the strength in the writing which had preceded it), but it does mean that the ending lacks the resonance it might otherwise have had.
Very few horror films are made with an adult audience in mind – Hounds of Love manages to be one of them. For that alone it deserves to be cherished. It’s not a comfortable watch by any means, but it’s an unusually well-written film, and a breathtakingly-well acted one. Ben Young’s direction is remarkably assured for a debut film, and if the ending slightly disappoints, that’s only because the rest of the film is so strong.
❉ ‘Hounds of Love’ is a Factor 30 Films Production, and is released in the UK at selected cinemas from Friday 28 July.