Hounds of Love is a deeply unsettling yet nuanced exploration of the serial killer couple motif. Perth Director, Ben Young’s first film represents an eerie, suspenseful addition to the series of Australian suburban-murder movies, and deconstructs portrayals of lovers who kill.
Set in Perth’s Summer of 1987, Hounds follows sadistic couple John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) as they lure, rape and murder young women within the confines of a quiet and somewhat more-naïve suburbia.
Like predators, they scope out their prey by offering them a lift in their car, the young women accepting when they believe Evelyn, as a woman and mother, is to be trusted. One such girl is 16-year-old Vicki, portrayed superbly by Ashleigh Cummings, lured when the Whites offer her cheap pot one night as she’s sneaking out to a party. It becomes quickly apparent that Vicki will not be leaving anytime soon.
Despite the subject-matter, Hounds is far from torture-porn. Scenes of sexual violence occur away from the viewer’s gaze, but the screams remain shattering. Silent panning of the aftermath of bloodied-bound wrists, Vicki’s brutalised face, sex toys, blood and tissues add to this dreadful sense of voyeuristic unease.
Young’s utilisation of slow-motion panning of 1980s’ Perth suburbs – moustached-men mowing lawns in footy shorts and thongs, children playing in sprinklers, the incessant heat – feels much more sinister than nostalgic. This banality of suburbia reinforces the naivety of its inhabitants to what’s going on behind closed doors.
The similarities between John and Evelyn White and Perth’s most infamous serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie are clear. Although Young has denied Hounds is based on their spree, the Birnie’s methods of luring, raping, torturing, and killing four young women in their Willagee home in the late ‘80s are undeniably close to his fictional couple’s tactics.
Where Young deviates from traditional gendered representations of serial-killer couples is in his construction of Evelyn. Psychopathic and sadistic John, who is relatively ‘powerless’ in his community and targeted by local thugs, reinforces constructions of the sexually violent, brutal, male killer. Whilst Curry’s performance of John is all-encompassing, terrifying and a vast shift from his likable place in our national psyche, the character itself does not stray too far from the male ‘psycho-killer’ construct. Conversely, Evelyn’s characterisation is complex and transformative.
Female criminality is often represented as ‘doubly-deviant,’ transgressing both social expectations of moral behaviour and patriarchal norms of femininity. Explorations of the anomaly of the female serial killer further emphasise this notion of gendered deviance, where behaviour is often viewed as her ‘failure’ as a woman. Media discourse tends to present female murderers within a ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ paradox to conceptualise their behaviour, perceived as emotionally unstable and insane, or evil, sexually deviant, manipulative, and incompetent wives and mothers. The irony of the lens of their unnatural behaviour, is that it often ignores female perpetrators’ agency and human responsibility.
Booth’s portrayal of Evelyn transgresses this ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ paradox. Whilst she is undeniably painted as a ‘bad mother’ having lost custody of her children and ‘mad’ for loving a murderess psychopath in John, her characterisation is more complex. Despite the fact she is a murderer, Young attempts to cultivate sympathy for Evelyn as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ He paints her as a victim of John’s violence, manipulated and trapped within their toxic co-dependent relationship, and wanting to get her children back. Had Young chosen to portray the Catherine Birnie, his attempts to create sympathy would be trumped by Australian preconceptions of her evilness.
It remains difficult for Young to fully cultivate sympathy for someone capable of torture and murder like Evelyn. Yet, his attempts at creating varied shades of victimhood within his female characters must be praised. Evelyn is simultaneously a sadistic killer and a passive, battered, partner. Whilst the actual victim of the Whites, Vicki is both brutalised and highly resourceful. Scenes of Vicki attempting to show Evelyn that she is merely used and not loved by John are among the most powerful.
Ultimately, Hounds of Love is a chilling, uncomfortable yet pivotal and lasting piece of Australian cinema. Had Young chosen to present Perth’s most infamous serial-killer couple on our screens, and his attempt to challenge gendered motifs of women who kill, could not have been so complex.