'Hounds of Love': Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Not for the squeamish.

Australian writer-director Ben Young's first feature is an unflinching immersion into the nightmare of a teenage girl, abducted and tortured by a serial-killer couple.

The dark side of sun-drenched Perth, Western Australia, one of the world's most isolated metropolises, has long been a source of fascination, memorably explored in author Robert Drewe's evocative true-crime memoir The Shark Net, about growing up during the wave of serial murders that shook the city in the 1950s. In his debut feature, Hounds of Love, writer-director Ben Young draws knowingly on that infamy, taking inspiration from the same killer, Eric Edgar Cooke, and more directly from David and Catherine Birnie, the couple who abducted and mutilated four young Perth women in the 1980s before the escape of their intended fifth victim led to their arrests.

The film faces a considerable challenge in that another Australian first-time director, Justin Kurzel, traveled similarly grisly territory with a more distinctive authorial voice in 2011's The Snowtown Murders. The high walkout rate during the Venice premiere of Young's film also suggests that even while most of the more extreme violence happens off-camera, the repugnant subject matter will be off-putting to many. But Hounds of Love benefits from impressive control of visuals to build suspense and from the spiky performances of its fearless cast, flagging Young as a talent to watch.

The opening sequence implants a potent sense of creepiness that recurs throughout, as Michael McDermott's pervy camera trains its languid gaze with obvious intent on the tanned arms and legs of a girls' netball team, and the brooding drone of Dan Luscombe's electronic score cranks up the churning dread. We see through the predatory eyes of a man and woman inside a car; they follow one of the players down a quiet street, convincing her to accept a lift and escape the sweltering summer heat.

That abduction takes place in December 1987, shortly before Christmas. Muffled offscreen cries and brief glimpses of chained hands and bloodied towels make it clear that the girl has been tortured and killed. Not until the next victim has been captured do we get a good look at the sadistic perpetrators, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry, Emma Booth), and their shabbily nondescript suburban house.

Rebellious 17-year-old Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) resents her mother Maggie (Susie Porter) over the latter's decision to leave Vicki's surgeon dad Trevor (Damian De Montemas). Defying Maggie's orders, Vicki sneaks out one night to go to a party and falls for the friendly overtures of the Whites when they offer her a drink and a joint.

Vicki's sensitivity to the breakdown of her parents' marriage makes her an astute observer of the fissures in the Whites' relationship, with John prone to selfish behavior and erratic outbursts while easily manipulated Evie's complaints invariably turn into whimpering apologies.

This is not one of those movies where the captive becomes an avenging warrior and turns the tables on her captors. Instead, Young keeps it grounded in squalid, gritty realism. Vicki is desperate, terrified and stripped of all dignity after days of being bound and abused by one or both of the Whites. But she's not too broken to make an escape attempt or to try using psychology on Evie, who deceives herself into believing that her emotional dependence on John is an even exchange.

Young has the Whites frequently writhing together in sleazy ecstasy, their libidos fueled by their malice, at times to nauseatingly humorous effect. (You'll never want to slow-dance to the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" again.) But it's also clear that Evie sees Vicki, and any younger woman, as a potential threat; she's constantly watching John for evidence of his waning desire for her. She also has children from another relationship, and she clings to John's false reassurance that he will help her regain custody.

The film's big problem — and it will be a categorical deal-breaker for many — is that even though Young continues to suggest more than he shows in terms of the sexual abuse and other violence, an unsavory whiff of torture-porn arises as Vicki's confinement grinds on and on. The script also gives way to movie-ish contrivances in the final act that undermine the verisimilitude of events that precede it. Nor does it help that we can predict Evie's role in the outcome long before it happens.

That said, the actors keep it reasonably compelling if you have the stomach for this kind of punishing material. Porter balances maternal warmth with a tough grip on her character's hard-won independence, and Cummings conveys a strong sense of Vicki's mind constantly at work, monitoring every situation she can exploit to her advantage while simultaneously imagining the worst possible fate that awaits her.

Primarily known as a comedy actor, Curry makes scrawny John with his silly mustache a contemptibly pathetic figure, building himself up through the power he exerts over women, whether it's his self-serving hold over Evie or his monstrous treatment of their victims. But Booth's performance, alternating between cold purposefulness and spiraling insecurity before crumbling in devastated defeat, makes her the most interesting character onscreen — she never asks us to pardon Evelyn, simply to consider her confused motivations.

For anyone interested in Oz TV trivia, it's worth noting that Cummings and Porter are reunited here after starring together in the terrific drama series Puberty Blues, while Curry and Booth played father and daughter in the television adaptation of West Australian author Tim Winton's Perth-set modern classic, Cloudstreet, which also references the Cooke murders.

The 1986 Kate Bush hit that gives the movie its title is unheard (rights were too pricey), but Young peppers Hounds of Love with mood-enhancing songs from Joy Division, Cat Stevens and early Nick Cave band Boys Next Door, among others, all of which predate the action by anywhere from seven to 20 years. That feeds into a sense of place depicting Perth at that time as a sleepy city several clicks on the dial behind the rest of the world.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: Factor 30 Films
Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas, Harrison Gilbertson
Director-screenwriter: Ben Young
Producer: Melissa Kelly
Director of photography: Michael McDermott
Production designer: Clayton Jauncey
Costume designer: Terri Lamera
Music: Dan Luscombe
Editor: Merlin Eden
Casting: Anousha Zarkesh
Sales: Urban Distribution International, Paris

Not rated, 108 minutes