Madeline Johnson calls Hounds of Love an anxiety-inducing observation of the cycles of abuse filled with Kate Bush’s best hits.
Australian crime thriller, HOUNDS OF LOVE premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016 to critical acclaim, including the Fedeora Award for Best Actress. Written and directed by Ben Young in an impressive directorial debut, the film stars Ashleigh Cummings as troubled teen Vicki Maloney. In the seemingly sleepy suburbs of Perth in the 1980s, Vicki attempts to sneak out for a night of partying. As she makes her way down the street, Vicki instead encounters a suspiciously friendly couple, Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry), who invite her into their home for a drink. After the couple drugs Vicki, she wakes up in chains and must figure out how to make it out of the house alive.
The cinematography intriguingly captures the essence of the film in scenes of hazy summer backdrops of the neighborhood trees to the suffocating home of Vicki’s captors. Cinematographer Michael McDermott uses a film grain with warm colors, capturing its 80s aesthetic. McDermott and Young use slow-motion shots throughout the film, successfully making the surrounding environment appear sterile and eerie, representing the hollow appearance of a normal suburb hiding the realities of a sinister secret. We first see Evelyn and John as their gaze ominously pans across teenage girls playing volleyball while they scope out their next victim. The audience sees this again after Vicki’s kidnapping showing kids running throughout the neighborhood.
As Vicki starts to feel the effects of her drugged drink, the frame blurs with her focus on objects around the room and time slows as she helplessly watches the couple dance in celebration. Instead of tight close-ups, we see long shots of open doorways from where Vicki is trapped, giving a voyeuristic viewpoint as she observes their interactions.
One horrifying aspect of the film is the couple’s deeply disturbing and explosive arguments. John is a sadistic master manipulator while Evelyn is painfully insecure, she grows dependent on him for approval with desperate pleas for affection. Evelyn, like Vicki, is a victim of John’s abuse, so she in turn abuses Vicki to leverage power in the relationship. As an unwilling witness to a volatile relationship, Vicki realizes that the most likely path to freedom is convincing Evelyn that John doesn't love her so she will release Vicki. The most compelling aspect of the film is its exploration of cycles of abuse and how to break them. While the film mainly focuses on the couple’s dynamic and Vicki’s fight for survival, there’s a lot left to be desired about her character outside of her role as a victim.
The film is intentionally crafted with well-paced suspense, leading to an ending that feels rightfully earned as a testament to the will to survive. HOUNDS OF LOVE clearly took inspiration from the ‘Moorhouse murders’—a case of four young women murdered by David and Catherine Birnie, in the Perth suburbs in 1986. The film makes subtle references to previous victims, including the opening scene where the couple waits to lure a schoolgirl into their car and in the police station where portraits of missing girls hang on the walls. Although Young admits he studied true crime cases to gain insight into the psychology of murderers, he claims that the connections to the perpetrators of the Moorhouse murders are merely speculation. Some reports alleged that during production the film explicitly tried to capture the details of the case—even copying the layout of the house that the Birnie’s lived, according to film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas said, “I physically shudder to imagine what Moir must feel to see her experience corrupted like this when she risked so much to save herself.” It’s rumored that some involved with the film’s production, who later retracted their statements, publically stated the film is about the Moorhouse murders.
The only survivor of the Moorhouse murders escaped using the bathroom window, similar to Vicki’s failed attempt in the first half of the film. Survivor Kate Moir openly criticized the film, “I feel taken advantage of and confused.” She said, “It is disappointing because I just want them forgotten.” A story that closely resembles true crime has the responsibility to honor victims rather than exploit them, whether they survived or not.
Despite some unnecessarily egregious depictions of sexual assault and concerns with honoring the victims the story clearly resembles, HOUNDS OF LOVE is a solid horror-infused crime thriller that will make your skin crawl. It’s full of 80s nostalgia, including nods to the Kate Bush album the film takes its name after and psycho-noir films like Blue Velvet (1986). It’s definitely worth a watch—just make sure you don’t hold your breath too long. I also recommend you consider supporting Moir’s memoir detailing her escape, Dead Girl Walking (2017) co-written with Andrew Byrne.