Australian horror has a reputation for being a bit rough around the edges. From Wolf Creek to Wyrmwood, horror flicks from down under tend to show everything in unflinching, gory detail for as long as audiences can possibly take it. There’s also, usually, a real-world component to the events portrayed onscreen. The most notorious example, arguably, is Wolf Creek‘s tale of raped and tortured backpackers.
The country’s latest offering, Ben Young’s Hounds of Love — which was released in the U.S. last May and limped into UK cinemas a couple months later — outwardly seems like more of the same. Inspired by a number of real-life crimes, the premise most closely resembles the case of David and Catherine Birnie, a serial killing couple who terrorized Perth in the 80s, and whose crimes only came to light when a 17-year-old would-be victim managed to escape their clutches.
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While marketing Hounds of Love, writer-director Young was quick to point out that it’s not based on the Birnies. However, real-life survivor Kate Moir criticised the film during an interview prior to its release, arguing that she’d rather not bring more attention to the couple. There was similar trouble with Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, which sought to dramatize true events more brazenly, even when relatives of the real-life victims lodged a complaint against it.
Young’s movie looks a lot like Wolf Creek, Snowtown, The Young Ones et. al. Its poster and trailer are brash and suggestive, its cinematography sun-baked. The movie’s very existence brings up the age-old argument of whether a story predicated on a violent sexual assault (or several) is ever really enjoyable. This remains a huge talking point among horror fans, while certain genre filmmakers, such as Adam Green (of the Hatchet series), outright refuse to feature rape in their work.
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There’s a case to be made about the use of such explicit sequences to provoke debate and increase awareness, but movies like I Spit On Your Grave 3: Vengeance Is Mine don’t really help to steer the conversation in the right direction, focused as they are on sensationalized scares. Likewise, Wolf Creek utilizes sexual assault as a kind of salacious entrée for gore-hounds who’ve stuck with it through the teasing lead-in to the so-called good stuff.
Hounds of Love is not that story. In contrast with everything one would expect from an Aussie sort-of true tale of rape, murder and domestic violence, the film keeps most of its horrors under wraps, often behind closed doors, perhaps seeking to echo how the actual crimes on which the story is based would have taken place in reality. The house is on a normal suburban street, with daily activities constantly happening all around.
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Young could have taken dramatic license with a story he’s claiming isn’t entirely based on any single real-life case. Instead, he holds back from giving viewers the money shot(s) in Hounds of Love by suggesting violent acts in the aftermath of what’s happened (a bloody dildo here, a bunch of soiled tissues there, etc). The effect is considerably more disturbing than Wolf Creek‘s lengthy rape and torture sequences which, even for the least seasoned viewer, start to wear thin after a while.
In Hounds of Love, the true horror comes in watching the submissive wife Evelyn meticulously cleaning up after horrifying misdeeds while laying out morning breakfast for her husband. It’s in watching their chosen victim’s strength slowly ebbing away, as the girl who was once thrashing against her restraints now barely moves a muscle on the soiled mattress to which she’s been confined.
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Young focuses on the horrific acts taking place on the fringes of society, leading viewers outside the house, occasionally, for glimpses of daily life (the couple going to the shop, being menaced by drug dealers — a sequence that offers insight into husband John’s bruised masculinity — and walking the dog). The sense that escape is just beyond the walls of this twisted family home makes the young woman’s plight even more heartbreaking in Hounds of Love.
When Evelyn asks her victim what happened while she was out, the answer comes simply: “what do you think happened?” This could easily be Hounds of Love’s defining statement. Young takes viewers inside the walls of a real-life house of horrors (or an amalgamation of several) but doesn’t wish to titillate anybody. The power of suggestion is enough when the clues are provided for viewers to fill in the blanks themselves. The implication: these things are happening everywhere, all the time.
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There’s another long-standing argument among horror fans about just how strong the power of suggestion actually is. Do we really need to see anything to be scared? Old-school flicks, still as frightening today as they were upon release, suggest the answer is “no,” while the prevalence of so-called torture porn (which technically originated in Australia with Saw) reminds that there’s still a huge market for gruesome and gory horror films.
Hounds of Love certainly makes an intriguing case for suggestion in place of an all-out, sensationalized show. Right from the first shot, Young teases that something terrible is about to happen. He establishes a mood so dark and full of portent that Evelyn’s reaction to screaming is more stomach-churning than seeing what’s actually behind the wall.
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Likewise, marks on a victim’s hands from restraints, discarded underwear and bruises/facial contusions provide more visual information than lengthy, violent sequences could ever hope to offer. A viewer’s imagination is always going to be stronger and more terrifying than what’s onscreen, and images are often quickly forgotten. Hounds of Love plays with this idea to push the tension to a breaking point.
If there’s anything to be remembered about Wolf Creek or Snowtown’s darkest sequences, it’s that they lose their power. There’s only so far an image can go, but the brain never stops. Hounds of Love plays into this by taking viewers all the way to the door and then shutting it tightly, forcing one to imagine what might be happening on the other side. And, as a result, it’s more memorable and chilling than any of its gorier counterparts could hope to be.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.