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Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Arts + CultureHair of the dog

Hair of the dog

Australian shocker 'Hounds of Love' scares by grounding its horror in everyday plausibility.

SCREEN GRABS Most scary movies let us off by retreating comfortably far into the realm of fantasy, and many of this summer’s popcorn movies will follow that formula, offering monsters from outer space (next week’s Alien: Covenant), traditional supernatural legend (next month’s The Mummy), or modern supernatural legend (Amityville: The Awakening). No one has to tell you “It’s only a movie” at entertainment machines like these—particularly since they’re all continuations or reboots of well-established screen horror “brands.” 

It’s all too rare, then, to find a new horror movie that’s genuinely harrowing, let alone grounded in unpleasant realism. There’s nothing fantastical about the Australian feature opening this Friday at the Roxie. Writer-director Ben Young’s auspicious debut feature Hounds of Love is (very) loosely inspired by some actual crimes in Perth (including the notorious Moorhouse Murders of four women by David and Catherine Birnie), but its fictionalized nature doesn’t reduce its air of queasy plausibility one whit. 

Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is a moderately rebellious teenager unhappy about being shunted between her mother (Susie Porter) and father (Damian De Montemas) since the former decided to separate from the latter. After arguing with mum one night, the girl sneaks out to attend a party. But en route she’s waylaid by an older couple who happen to be driving past, and who offer to sell her some weed. 

As we’ve already glimpsed the fate of one young woman who previously got a lift from John (Stephen Curry) and Evie White (Emma Booth)—surely not the first such victim—we are braced for this to turn out a catastrophic decision on Vicki’s part. Enticed into their nondescript suburban house, the teen soon finds herself a terrified and brutalized captive. She’s forded to write a letter home suggesting she’s left town in a petulant snit. Mom and Vicki’s boyfriend (Harrison Gilbertson) don’t buy it, but the local police figure they’re in denial, writing it off as another routine runaway case. 

Meanwhile, our heroine has to figure out how to survive an ordeal from which it’s safe to guess there will be no voluntary release. She’s there to amuse the sadistic John, with the help of wife Evie—an apparent former kidnapee herself turned permanent companion with a whopping case of Stockholm Syndrome—until they tire of her. But Vicki perceives the imbalances and insecurities in their twisted relationship. She’s desperate, but not so undone by panic that she can’t think of ways to exploit those psychological fault lines toward engineering a possible escape. 

Highly worked without being over-stylized, Hounds of Love deploys lyrical slow-motion shots of everyday life going on just outside the Whites’ house to underline how easily evil can hide in a setting of banal normality. (As Vicki’s mother unravels from worry, she’s cruelly oblivious to the fact that her daughter is being held hostage just a couple blocks from her own doorstep.) There’s nothing larger-than-life about the villains, as cunningly written and acted here. They’re all too credible in their dysfunction, viciousness, and interdependence—the antisocial neighbors no one likes, yet whose true depravity is unguessed at.

That air of gritty realism, shorn of typical slasher-flick misogynist titillation, makes the film often seem punishingly graphic—even though the worst of the torturing abuses Vicki and a predecessor suffer are actually left offscreen, where they fester in our imagination. This movie’s monsters are the ordinary-looking kind you might actually encounter in real life, which makes Hounds of Love less “fun” than your average mall-flick horror, but a lot more genuinely upsetting.

Hounds of Love plays this weekend at the Roxie.

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