Not unlike their counterparts in Scandinavia, Australian filmmakers are apparently dead set on reminding us that their homeland isn’t as happy as it’s made out to be. That may not be good for tourism, but it does have its cinematic perks. One of those is the writing and directing debut of Ben Young, whose “Hounds of Love” suggests that the couple who slays together stays together — at least for a time.
Young lures us into his unnerving environs with an arresting slo-mo sequence, opening the film by surveying the girls’ volleyball practice from which John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) take their latest victim. It’s an easy process — they simply ask a teenage girl if she’d like a ride — and we’re made to see the group of girls as they do: a hunting ground rich with prey. This nameless victim isn’t the first, nor is she the last.
“Hounds of Love” begins properly just minutes later with a repeat of that familiar setup, the kind they call every parent’s worst nightmare: Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) defies her parents by sneaking out one night, eventually falling for the same trick as who knows how many other girls before her: accepting John and Evelyn’s offer of a lift. Every word, every detail is carefully chosen to appear as nonthreatening as possible. We see Vicki’s thought process — she agrees after noticing a car seat in the back; surely the parents of a small child wouldn’t do anything to harm her? — and know her fate is sealed.
As for why the two do this, it’s as good a reason as any other horror-flick justification: They get off on it.
Young repeats that earlier trick again, setting Vicki’s abduction to the soothing sounds of “Nights in White Satin” and blurring everything onscreen so that our perspective briefly matches hers. These aesthetic flourishes are as necessary as they are nice to look at, and go a long way toward making the darker shades of “Hounds of Love” less of an endurance test.
Many genre filmmakers have mastered the art of incongruous musical cues, and Young occasionally seems at risk of turning Vicki’s harrowing experiences into the basis of an Instagram-ready music video. She spends much of her time bound and gagged, unable to move or speak, and at times it’s as though the musical interludes are meant to speak for her. That’s never truer than in the film’s most striking sequence, set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and quietly triumphant: “Walk in silence / Don’t walk away in silence / See the danger / Always danger.”
Young shifts his focus between Vicki and Evelyn throughout, showing the latter to be a captive victim in her own right — the bond she has with John is toxic, even abusive, and at times she seems on the verge of doing the right thing and letting Vicki go. But she returns to him time and again, finding his lies and assurances more comforting than the truth, and all their prisoner can do is look on in horror. We share Vicki’s agony as we find ourselves in a similar position, sometimes for the worse but more often for the better.