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Hounds of Love is the best surprise to horror fans in 2017

Though not too innovative, Hounds of Love is thematically expressive in telling a pulpy, distressing story about three female characters.

Hounds of Love opens with voyeuristic slow shots, scanning many a body of school girls—disregarding their faces—during sporting activities. That indecent inspection comes from inside a brown station wagon, where John White (Stephen Curry) and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth), a casual-looking couple, are choosing their next target. These serial killers-rapists are the antagonists in Aussie writer/director Ben Young’s debut feature about the disturbing undertow of middle-class families and matrimonial dynamic. With riffs from true-crime stories in West Australia, hidden wickedness emerges in Young’s exquisite braids of depraved titillation, domestic violence, and maternal love.

Set during 1987, when “Later gator,” and Grease are still trendy, inside the isolated, laid-back town of Perth, Hounds demonstrates the serene life with dispersed montages of mundanitites and airplanes crossing miles above the neighborhood. Here, John and Evelyn’s house looks normal, except for the boarded windows, filthy bed sheets, and metal chains tied to the bedstead. With their usual modus operandi of approaching their victim when streets are empty—day or night—and offering her a ride, the Whites abduct school girls.

A new week begins the same for them. Eve wakes up, pets her dog Lou-Lou, and prepares breakfast for John before cleaning up blooded tissues and adult toys in the room they keep the girl. The unseen is disturbing: a defenseless victim, battered and with a rag in her mouth, is tied up on the bed. She is “ready” for John to carry on the last steps of his crime—with music on the radio juxtaposed with implied violence. These normies are bored by the mundanities; their veneers hide kinks and quirks. To fulfill the dissatisfaction, they become sneaky hounds that seek the thrill of sexual assault and torture. When one of the Whites’ neighbors knocks on their door, the movie indicates everyone in this neighborhood may harbor a dark secret, figured out by all but known in detail only to a few.

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The heroine of this disturbing thriller is everygirl Vicki (Ashley Cummings). She has a boyfriend Jay (Harrison Gilbertson), who writes assignments for her, and a couple of divorced parents. Whereas Vicki gets along well with her better-off dad, Trevor (Damian De Montemas), she must stay with her seemingly stubborn, prideful mom, Maggie (Susie Porter), two nights per week. Young uses a wide shot from outside the house to confine Vicki and Maggie with window panes, illustrating their emotionally distant and inimical relationship. Subtly brilliant, Maggie and Trevor's doomed marriage sets a stage for us to compare it, in terms of gender dynamics, with Evelyn and John’s.

A fateful night, Vicki sneaks out on her mother looking for a cab. To avoid cat-calling and the like of obvious dangers, she falls into something much worse than those. Again, the Whites offer a ride and, for the party Vicki is joining, some weed. Their casual attitude and friendly chitchat sedate the girl’s cautiousness before they drug her in their house. By the time Vicki sees the porn VHS tapes, it's too late to be cautious. Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” plays in the background of Vicky's trance-like descent into the perverse world of this couple.
More than a kidnap, this is a situation for people to project their insecurity, fear, and pent-up hatred that would never surface otherwise. Similar to Berlin Syndrome—an earlier 2017 Australian thriller about the abductor and the abducted, Hounds uses familiar motifs to dramatic effect: the tight door into the room where Vic is kept looks like an entrance to a dark dungeon, and everyone has a dog because they provide a special sense of comfort and duty. Each detail becomes either the basis or the catalyst for a rising animosity, which revolves around the uncertainty of Vicki's death.

Despite soft gestures that allude maternal care, the substance-abusing Eve remains commanding with her watchful, judgmental eyes. She has a volatile tendency towards treating her terrified victim, influenced by how the thirsty John wants the girl for his own. As John checks Vicki’s diary, signs of silenced jealousy start showing from Eve.

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Using flat light, director Young still keeps in shots moody and unnerving even during the day, via visual cues that are emotionally telling but never exploitative. For the gruesome imagery, he doesn’t go overboard because the most disgusting wrongs happen off-screen. From the equipment and the Whites’ intention, we can clearly picture them in our heads. That’s how the horror penetrates viewers.

Vicki, subdued and fazed, doesn’t give up and spots intimidating evidence of a conflict. In this devilish house, Lou-Lou’s poop is just one among many red flags of dissatisfaction regarding gender roles. With the scale of power leaning towards John, the toxic know-your-place mindset is where Vicki can exploit for a crack between her two foes. Cummings, retaining sanity and wit for her character, shines through the bruises and tears. It’s always a mortifying scene to look at: she helplessly yanks at the tight chains in desperation as the Whites approach her. But when she sees a way out, the quick-witted girl adapts and improvises. She even resorts to one of our most human needs to stall a sexual assault by John.

“Jockey John”—as the bullying locals to whom he owns money—has an effeminate appearance and finds the compensating dominance in his household. Therefore Eve, physically and financially inferior to husband, is also a victim. The miserable woman sometimes looks back at her previous life with children and a more abusive husband, which invites our sympathy. Through dialogue, viewers find out John’s act of chivalry that sparks the relationship in which the female is spellbound and subservient to the male.

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However, Eve grows to be anxious about being betrayed by the man she loves and lusts after. She sinks into dispiriting oppression, but instead of waking up from the sedation, she finds this situation a competition with Vicki. Eve dolls up for a self-entitled victory, to which John responds with his calm manipulation. It becomes more riveting and persuasive through Booth’s soulless, contemptuous eyes, which actualizes Eve’s disoriented look—a recurring image of this passive, disgraceful woman. It ricochets Curry’s acts of unruffled seduction—ingratiatingly shallow compliments to soothe Eve's anger.

For this missing case, the police basically palm off. The movie cuts back to Maggie to show her growing concern and strong-willed intention to find her daughter. While the father takes a passive and more practical approach to the disappearance, she keeps up the desperate hope. This provides more insight into Maggie and Trevor's broken marriage, hence the thematic resonance between two couples that exposes the provocative undertone. When the third act comes to a spine-tingling climax, the three actresses give their most poignant performances. Empathy trumps carnality, and each of the pieces falls into its place.

It’s a team effort, as Young and the cast took on a homespun premise and crafted intense sequences of terror and family tragedy out of this straightforward plot. Though not too innovative, Hounds is thematically expressive in telling a pulpy, distressing story about three female characters who struggle to find the agency they lack.