Brimming with eager ideas to freshen up the genre, the story of a kidnapped girl turns into a psychological portrait of a sadistic couple which doesn't skimp on style.
Hounds of Love, the debut feature from Ben Young, opens in anesthetising slow motion. School girls play volleyball, at first resembling frozen statues, and it takes more than a few passing moments to realise the microscopic movements of the ball, or a girl jumping through the air, hypnotically moving with a sluggish dread. It takes even longer to realise we are spying on them.
We could be forgiven for assuming Hounds attempts to dumb down its horrifying content, exploring the sadistic kidnapping of Australian schoolgirl Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) by murderous couple John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth), by the stylistic allure it indulges in, closing in on long-takes of the seeping bruises gradually snowballing around Vicki’s body, or the crisp framing and indulgent mise-en-scene that marks John and Evelyn’s paltry suburban home. Comparisons to the work of Nicholas Winding Refn are blatant, resemblances to Spike Jonze’s Her are less so. But both tackle an important question debated by cinephiles from the get-go, one that Hounds seems to have taken on from its conception; how far should style dominate substance, or perhaps consider it conversely – and does it really matter?
The short answer is no. The long answer is definitely and absolutely yes, and with varying limits that shift depending on the subject matter it frames. Luckily, despite the horrifying nature of the events of Hounds, much of it takes place out of frame. It is the tension of what is promised to happen, or what the luscious stylistic elements knowingly cover, that forms the backbone of Young’s stunning debut. There is a unique and calculating eye governing Hounds, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch. The influence of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners springs to mind here, the frame within a frame of Vicki’s torture, or the slow zooming close up of mid-grounded objects, teasing out a gradually rampant and equally unavoidable unease.
Though markedly less involved in the shock-factor as character-building exercise Prisoners indulges in (admittedly, to its own benefits), Hounds does let loose an occasional glimpse of the pleasure its team took in its conception. As a drugged Vicki tries to escape the couple’s house and is swiftly restrained and chained to a bed, the smooth, dreamy guitar of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’ reaches its climax, and it’s hard to imagine Young sporting an absolute poker face whilst privy to its stylistic artistry.
The relation to the real-life serial-killer-couple David and Catherine Birnie poses a further dilemma, and one which was not seen lightly upon the film’s release in its home country, drawing both praise and concern over its seemingly exploitative means and uncanny resemblance of actual kidnappings. But if you can stomach its content, Hounds of Love is an impressive debut rivalling even The Babadook and is sure to catch the eyes of Hollywood with enough time. The style over substance debate means zilch to Young – eat your heart out Refn, according to Australia’s next big name, style’s a whole lot more than what you think it is.
Hounds of Love, directed by Ben Young, is released through Gunpowder and Sky. Rated 18.