This started as a review of Hounds of Love, and has mutated into a meditation on genre. It’s a bit rambling, and once again I wish I could afford to pay someone to edit this stuff, but I hope those of you interested in horror and the fringes of the genre find something of interest in it.
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
You may have noticed this already. But I love horror movies. Since about as far back as I can remember I have prized films that deliver a punch to the gut. Among the first pictures that I can remember seeing in a cinema is Disney’s Bambi. I have never seen it since. Years later, it is not the cute animals and the comedy bunny that I vividly remember. It is Bambi being orphaned by a hunter’s bullet. One of the most traumatic scenes in any family film ever. I still can still point to the scar it left on my psyche.
Buy me a pint and I’ll roll up my sleeves and talk you through movies and TV that have left their mark. Oh look, there’s Jaws. That one? That is Miracle Mile. There is Threads, Blue Velvet, Audition, Vampire Circus, the episode of The Muppet Show with Vincent Price… it’s a long list. You may need to visit the bar more than once before we are done.
Something that I think happens to all horror fans with time, is that they get acquainted with the conventions and tropes of the genre. In this case familiarity doesn’t necessarily lead to contempt, but it does mean that the genre becomes cosier, friendlier, and less horrific. The seasoned horror fan can anticipate the direction of travel in a scary movie. Jump scares still get through, which is perhaps why modern horror has become so obsessed with them. Jump scares are easy to do, it’s just a long pause, a frame with no apparent subject, a slight camera move in, and a sudden loud noise through the rear left speaker. It’s the filmic equivalent of a doctor’s hammer to the knee, producing a predictable and involuntary physical response. It’s about the dullest thing a horror movie can do.
Nevertheless, the horror fan is a junkie. We are always sharing the dragon, looking for that initial rush we remember. The feeling of fear and terror that perversely tells us we are alive. If you are anything like me, you begin finding that rush further and further away from the horror genre’s main strip. Ranging wider into the suburbs, into the shadows haunting the fringes, finding (as The Boss sang) the darkness on the edge of town.
Writer/director Ben Young’s Hounds of Love is among a number of Australian films from the last few years to have taken inspiration from true crime stories. These include Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000), Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005), David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011).
Chopper is an unconventional crime biopic, and Animal Kingdom a low rent familial gangster saga, but the other three are stories of serial killers. Three films over 12 years might not sound like a new wave, but the low profile of antipodean productions released in the UK has not stopped the claim being made.
John Jarratt in Wolf Creek
Wolf Creek is an out-and-out horror film, albeit one savage enough to sit comfortably alongside examples of the New French Extremism that appeared around the same time (most notable: Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003); Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s À l’intérieur (2007); Pascal Laugier’s utterly extraordinary Martyrs (2008)). As personified by actor John Jarratt, so horrifying was Wolf Creek’s villain Mick Taylor that a sequel and spin off TV show have ‘done a Freddie’ and turned the character into a wise-cracking anti-hero.
Wolf Creek is set in the Outback, which for years has been the landscape of Australian genre films, from the alcoholic frenzy of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), the poetic mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), to the post-apocalyptic action playground of George Miller’s Max Max (1979) and it’s sequels.
Lucas Pittaway in Snowtown
Snowtown and Hounds of Love move away from this barren territory finding monsters behind the screen doors of Australian suburban bungalows. I wouldn’t describe either as horror films, despite both being clearly horrifying. Interestingly (in the UK at least) Snowtown was marketed by distributor Revolver as a crime drama, avoiding any suggestions that it might be seen as horror. Director Kurzel rejected any attempts to link his film to the horror genre, stating “It’s definitely not a horror film. The violence doesn’t lead the film like violence usually does in a horror film” [from Interview Magazine]. Hounds of Love’s UK distributor Arrow has not gone out of its way to place the film as horror, but neither have they discouraged this (the film played at the Glasgow FrightFest). It’s a canny approach. The film is really quite tough for the pure art-house audience.
In Young’s film, a degenerate married couple John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) abduct a high school student Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings). The couple has been taking girls who they assault sexually before killing them and disposing of their bodies. In a chilling opening scene, before even introducing the killer couple, Young mounts an exceptional ultra slow motion tracking shot of teenage girls at netball practice. The discordant music and the leering camera create the feeling of a remote viewer observing young flesh as if perusing the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Pizza Hut.
Vicki is their latest victim, but although chained to a bed, she is smart and takes time to observe the pair seeing how there are tensions between them. The film is compelling because of the way it shows the shifting power relationships both within and without the house and how Vicki tries to exploit them to survive.
Hounds of Love’s primary point of view initially seems to be that of Vicki, but more and more it becomes Evelyn’s. Historically there are many examples of killer couples. David and Catherine Birnie’s atrocities in Melbourne in 1986 have been taken by many critics as the basis of Hounds of Love’s plot, regardless of the fact that Young denies they are the direct source. Examples of other murderous couples include The Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, ‘The Honeymoon Killers’ Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez. Young’s real interest is the dynamic of serial killing couples, and in particular what the women’s role in them is. This is the question Hounds of Love seeks to address.
Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to define, it’s a genre where you know it when you see it, but it has branched and mutated so far now from its gothic roots that no simple two sentence definition seems to fit. What I personally consider takes both Hounds of Love and Snowtown away from the genre is their point of view. They are both situate it with the perpetrators, something that is widespread in crime movies, but is actually rare in horror. Horror directors often use snippets of killer p.o.v in films as a device to establish suspense, it is a trope of the slasher film. However, even later Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels do not spend their entire time in their killer’s shoes.
By moving the primary p.o.v to the killer, films like Hounds of Love, Snowtown, and also John McNaughton’s notorious Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) demonstrate that they are not horror films. In the Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror editor Phil Hardy says “…horror deals with fantasies and ideologies rather than social realities.“ I don’t personally concur with this, especially in the genre post Night of the Living Dead (1968). Nonetheless, it seems to me that at the very least the horror filmmaker must pretend to be on the side of the victim, even if their ultimate fascination is with the monster. Hounds of Love, Snowtown, and Henry are completely about their killers. And these are not hyper-intelligent killers like Hannibal Lector or Kevin Spacey in Se7en. They are more realistic portrayals of pathologies. These monsters are not cool. They may be cunning, but they are not Professor Moriarty, there aren’t any Mensa memberships here.
As Evelyn, Emma Booth is brilliant in Hounds of Love, never a character who elicits sympathy, but one the actor finds a truth within, something that we can understand if not entirely empathise with. Stephen Curry’s portrayal of John is skin crawling, but outside of his home where he feels powerful through brutalising the weak (including Evelyn’s dog) John is himself being bullied by the local weed dealer to whom he owes money. He is at once a terrifying and utterly pathetic example of perverted masculinity.
Hounds of Love carries a BBFC 18 certificate, and no one would deny that it truly earns this and is a very upsetting and disturbing film. However, Ben Young manages to accomplish this with a very limited amount of actual on-screen violence. Rape and violence happen behind slammed doors, or just outside of the frame. More is conveyed through sound design than blood and gore. It is considerably less graphic film than Wolf Creek or Snowtown, but just as upsetting.
Where Hounds of Love really shines, is that while if scours the soul, it also tries to find a moment of emotional transcendence to release us from its brutal story. In the extraordinary finale, the world outside (sunshine, hope, freedom, love) and the world inside (degradation, filth, horror, death) collide in a sustained sequence that uses sound and image to stab you in the heart. I expected to be horrified. I had been well forewarned. Nevertheless, I was unprepared to be moved to tears.