The Art of Lean Mean: Ben Young crafts a tense, stripped-down thriller with 'Hounds of Love'

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“I love a good thriller. I love a good horror [film]. You see stuff marketed all the time: ‘The scariest movie of the last ten years,’ or whatever. It’s not scary! It’s just gorenography.” Australian writer/director Ben Young counters this trend towards torture porn with his feature debut Hounds of Love, which manages to be bone-rattlingly terrifying despite not showing much violence at all.

The premise is the stuff of nightmares. Teenage Vicki (“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”’ Ashleigh Cummings) is walking to a party one night when a beaten-up car pulls alongside her. Its inhabitants, John and Evelyn, offer to sell her some weed. She accepts. They drive back to the couple’s suburban home, where Vicki somewhat uneasily accepts a drink. The drink is drugged, and before long Vicki finds herself chained to a bed, the latest victim of a pair of twisted serial killers.

In a wicked bit of casting against type, John is played by Stephen Curry, “one of Australia’s most beloved comedic actors,” Young explains. “I was a little bit nervous that the audience wouldn’t buy this girl jumping into the car with two strangers. But then I thought, a-ha, casting Stephen Curry fixes all of that. The context that would bring to an Australian audience [is that] absolutely, we’d all understand why she would jump into the car. Anyone in Australia would jump into a car with Stephen Curry.” For non-Australian audiences, it works, too: Hounds of Love is set in the '80s, and if it's not advisable that Vicki gets into a car with a strange couple, well, it's not like she can pull out her cellphone and hail a cab or shoot off a quick "here's where I am in case I get murdered" text.

(Incidentally, this was my first exposure to Stephen Curry. I can now confidently state that if he offered me a ride, or even looked in my general direction, I would run away screaming.)

What stands out most about Hounds of Love is that it’s one of the most tense horror films in recent memory. From the very first scene, Young establishes a sense of oh God oh God oh God that only escalates until the film’s final moments. That took careful crafting from Young and editor Merlin Cornish. The initial cut of Hounds of Love opened with twenty pages of “Vicki and her home life and dealing with her Mom and Dad.” And, while Vicki’s relationship with her parents—particularly with her mother (Susie Porter), whom Vicki resents for leaving her father— is critical to her character, starting with the everyday was “so boring, so kitchen sink. Nothing happens. There’s no way to get the audience in.” So, three days before picture lock, that opening was scrapped and replaced by something new: a scene showing Vicki’s predecessor being lured in by John and Evelyn. Brightly lit and languidly paced, it could stand alone as a short film, a quick burst of shadow lingering in the heart of innocent suburbia. As part of a larger whole, it serves a different purpose. We know the horrible things Vicki’s going to be put through before she ever does. Cue gripping your armrests.

And yet… we don’t really know, because we never see them. The violent acts—mostly committed by John, with Evelyn his co-dependent assistant/accomplice—take place for the most part just outside of the frame or in the space between scenes. That was part of Young’s vision from the very beginning. “The big difference between violence and tension [is that], for me, tension is all about what could happen, not about what does happen. So I almost set it as a personal challenge to myself to see how tense I could make this thing without showing much violence. And so it all became about the reaction to violence, rather than the violence itself. I always knew that if I showed the violence too much, it would become a film about the acts. But I never wanted to make that. I wanted to make a film about the people involved in the acts.”

And so, Hounds of Love becomes not “girl gets kidnapped and tortured” but “girl who gets kidnapped and tortured tries to figure out a way to pick at the holes in her captors’ relationship so she can escape.” It makes Vicki a remarkable horror heroine, one whose trauma is never exploited for cheap thrills. She’s terrified but also proactive—something Young admits was a challenge when “she’s chained up half the time.”

“Ashleigh did an amazing job. She brought so much to it, so much detail,” explains Young. For instance, there’s a scene where things look particularly dire for Vicki, and she essentially shuts down, succumbing to hopelessness and accepting the fact that she’s going to be murdered. In one of the film’s more gutting moments, returning to her makeshift prison, she chains herself back up to the bed. “That was something that Ashleigh and I discovered on the day—that even in this time of absolute destitution, she was still prepared to try and take control of the situation in any way that she could, even if it meant sacrificing herself.”

Hounds of Love is filled with moments like that: small details that pack a big emotional wallop. It’s a tightly contained film that says a lot with very little. The bulk of the action takes place with three characters in a cramped, crowded house. The shoot was “super quick, super cheap, super dirty”—20 days, “which is the equivalent of 15 days in the US, because you guys like to shoot for 12 hours, and we only like to shoot for 10. And it was hot. We had a week where it was 45 degrees Celsius every day.”

For a film with such a tight, sharp-edged vision, I was surprised to learn that the original cut of Hounds of Love was over three hours long, with entire scenes left on the cutting-room floor. “So much of the film is just about looks and people sitting there, thinking. There was a lot more of that,” Young notes. The aforementioned “kitchen sink” opening got the chop, as did a conversation-heavy scene set just after John, Emma and Vicki met. Ditto a pair of scenes from the b-plot, in which Vicki’s parents search for her. And there’s one cut scene that, through its absence, exemplifies Hounds of Love’s entire approach to horror. After a failed escape attempt, Vicki is locked in a bathroom with John. We don’t see what happens—all the audience is privy to is Emma hovering at the door, tormented, wondering what John’s doing to her. “We shot everything that happened in the bathroom. We shot all of it. It was written to be cut in between the two. And the film was just way too long. It was one of those moments where we thought, ‘Ah, Emma’s performance is so strong, if we just stick with her and see her imagining everything that’s going on in there, it’s going to be far stronger,” Young explains.

“When you hear a scream and that door closes, what we’re imagining going on behind that door is far worse than anything I could have shown.”