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The serial killer-thriller ‘Hounds of Love’ tries for female empowerment in its suburban horror tale

The serial killer-thriller ‘Hounds of Love’ tries for female empowerment in its suburban horror tale
Stephen Curry and Emma Booth in the film "Hounds of Love." (Jean-Paul Horr / Gunpowder & SkyŽ)

The stillness of suburban life is deafening in Perth, Australia, circa 1987 — even more so as teenaged Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) finds herself duped, drugged and chained to the bed of a serial-killing couple in "Hounds of Love," Australian writer-director Ben Young's harrowing debut thriller.

On these sleepy streets, evocatively drained of color by cinematographer Michael McDermott, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) stalk nubile high school girls under their neighbors' noses, luring their prey with kindly smiles and seemingly innocent offers of rides, drugs and drink.

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Modeled after real-life murderers David and Catherine Birnie, who in the 1980s hunted young women in western Australia in similar fashion, their methods are simple: They entice victims back to their modest home, turn on a little "Nights in White Satin," roofie them, terrorize them and much, much worse.

It's not just psychosexual games that the married murderers are playing at, her own sadistic impulses blossoming under his volatile and abusive control. As "Hounds of Love" opens, director Young shows John discreetly dispatching their most recent houseguest before burying the body in the woods. Evelyn, meanwhile, hangs the laundry and, perhaps, occasionally dreams of flying away from their supremely twisted brand of dysfunctional domestic bliss.

Even as teen girls go missing, no one in their quiet town is any the wiser to the evils transpiring behind the walls of these wolves in sheep's clothing.

Enter Vicki. After a rebellious row with her mother, whom she blames for divorcing her surgeon dad, she braves the night to sneak out to a party and finds herself in the Whites' headlights.

Ashleigh Cummings as Vicki Maloney in the film "Hounds of Love."
Ashleigh Cummings as Vicki Maloney in the film "Hounds of Love." (Jean-Paul Horre / Gunpowder & Sky)

Accepting a ride from the friendly couple, she realizes too late that she's let herself become ensnared by her newfound hosts. Imprisoned in their guest bedroom, no one can hear her screams; she quickly realizes that she must use her wiles and exploit the cracks in her captors' relationship if she's ever going to escape.

Young's vision of quiet middle-class mayhem, drawn from the three-handed struggle between young Vicki and her tormentors, is bold and unflinching. It drips with the verisimilitude of late 1980s suburbia, hinting at toxically masculine aggression that hangs in the everyday air even outside the confines of the Whites' walls.

But this film is not for viewers with weak stomachs, and it makes for a frankly punishing way to spend 108 minutes as the dread ratchets to an unrelenting pitch that never eases up and verges on nausea-inducing for the easily triggered.

Nerves will fray as "Hounds of Love" threatens to crank the sadistic nightmare to 11, and while Young restrains himself from veering into torture-porn territory, emotional manipulations, knives to throats and vulnerable female bodies are still the film's currency.

What makes the torment worth enduring is the trio of ferocious performances at its center, bare and ugly and unvarnished. (Slow-motion scenes driving through suburban utopia, pulling back to reveal the Whites' predatory point of view as they cruise the streets for fresh meat, are striking highlights of McDermott's lensing.)

Cummings imparts Vicki with resourcefulness despite spending much of her screen time bruised, bound and gagged. Curry, a comedian in real life, oozes a dangerous, desperate menace as "Hounds of Love" gives unsettling intimacy to the couple's home life and the mind games John uses to keep Evelyn emotionally captive and under his thumb, both witness and accomplice to his crimes.

It's Booth's fearless portrayal of Evelyn's instability and trauma, however, warped by years of manipulation and her own sense of loss, that emerges as the film's most riveting anchor. Young takes a stab at wrapping up his tale on a multistranded note of female empowerment that doesn't quite land, but the message stands. After putting his heroine through the ringer, it's the least he can do.

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‘Hounds of Love’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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