Serial killers will never cease to be fascinating. With over a century of filmmaking under humanities belts, the exploration of violent psychopaths has been one of the few constant staples of film history. From Psycho to Silence of the Lambs, inhumane murderers are littered throughout even the most innocent of DVD collections. Violent acts are inherently cinematic – they provide moments where sight and sound induce a visceral reaction from an audience. This gut reaction is likely why the horror genre still goes back to this murderous well time and time again, and Hounds of Love is no exception.
John and Evelyn White are a married couple who moonlight as the kidnappers and murderers of, as far as the audience knows, at least one teenage girl in the days before Christmas. Vicki Maloney is a slacking high school student who’s struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce. After an argument leads to Vicki sneaking out of her mother’s house, she has the misfortune of crossing paths with the Whites, who take advantage of her immaturity and youth. After being drugged and chained to a bed, Vicki has to find a way to survive the Whites’ torture and torment and use all her wits to find an escape.
As you can probably tell by the synopsis, this is a supremely foul film loaded with vile and repugnant imagery – it’s the kind of movie where a woman fends off being raped by defecating on her would-be rapist’s shlong. That said, it’s also a remarkably restrained film, particularly for its genre. Director Ben Young, in his first feature film, does an excellent job of limiting the audience’s exposure to these bouts of madness, leaving each instance to carry much more weight than most gore-obsessed horror films. Letting the audience’s imagination run wild as the Whites “have fun” with Vicki whilst all we hear is her screams as the camera slowly creeps towards the closed door allows Young to both have his depraved cake and eat it too.
Young and his crew, through camerawork, lighting, and set dressing, do an incredible job of creating an unpleasant and uneasy tone timbre throughout the proceedings. Outside of just the obvious chains on bedposts and other assorted murder tools, there is something always slightly off about the White residence. It’s neither a crazed viper’s den nor an impeccable suburban dreamhouse; rather the subtleties of how Young presents the White’s home add to the foreboding dread of the film. The layout of the couple’s home is also marginally off kilter, and the film manages to both establish this geography whilst maintaining a sense of disorientation. Young is also adept at using pop music to elevate the unsettling vibes given off by the Whites – let’s just say you’ll never hear The Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” the same way ever again.
Also interesting is how Young manages the character dynamics throughout the film. While just as mentally unstable and prone to homicidal urges as John, Evelyn desperately desires to be a functional mother and wife. She’s distraught at the idea that John would consider sexually abusing their female victims, despite her unwavering intention to execute them. This drives a wedge between her and John, whose primal impulses consistently reign supreme.
What is most notable about Hounds of Love is that, with very rare exception, the only characters whose agency is used for anything admirable are female. While Evelyn is a homicidal monster, she genuinely cares for her dog, her children, and has a deep desire to do the right thing only to be forced into horrific situations by John, who is an irredeemable devil. While Vicki’s divorced parents come together to search for their lost daughter, her mother Maggie remains devoted and focused on finding Vicki while her father Gary uses this tragedy to try and “win” (see also: manipulate) his ex-wife back. Not to mention Vicki herself, who is a brilliant, resourceful young woman who outwits every other character in the film at one point or another. Young hammers this home with a climax where our three female leads are the only characters that have any real agency in their actions, and the representative patriarchy is left mouths agape at what’s happened.
Hounds of Love is a vulgar, borderline-exploitation film, but it’s a well-crafted and superbly executed film that introduces Ben Young as a director to watch in the future. Despite his relative inexperience, he shows an incredible knack for using all the tools at his disposal while crafting a compelling narrative that capitalizes on genre familiarity. The plot of Hounds of Love may not be novel or inventive, but Young’s uses visual ingenuity and a clever thematic scope to make it one of the finer directorial debuts in recent years.