Unleashing the Hounds of Love

Director Ben Young on his serial-killer couple drama

Truly, madly, deeply: Stephen Curry and Emma Booth in Ben Young's new serial-killer drama Hounds of Love.

The serial killer as lone wolf is terrifying enough. Yet two serial killers bonded by blood seems infinitely more frightening. That hideous dynamic inspired Ben Young to film Hounds of Love. He said, "We've all seen 'girl gets kidnapped' stories before, but we haven't really seen 'couple who kidnaps girls' stories before."

Australian writer/director Young's debut feature premiered at SXSW 2017 (read our review here), and shocked audiences with its claustrophobic, febrile depiction of a serial-killer partnership: manipulative John (Stephen Curry) and enabler Evelyn (Emma Booth). Young's OK with it upsetting viewers. "If you loved it," he said, "there's something wrong with you."

Young's script focuses on John and Evelyn's dysfunctional co-dependence, with their cycle of kidnapping, abusing, and murdering teenage girls well established. However, the original draft, and even the shooting script, focused far more on their latest victim, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), "and it was just in the development of the script, and even the final cut, that it became more about them. I discovered what they were doing was so interesting, and was working in a way that I hadn't written on the page."

He described the change as organic, and credits Booth's performance for opening up this whole new approach to the story, making Evelyn rounded and sympathetic without detracting from her role in this bloody mess. "She just brought so much thought process to it, that there was conflict behind her eyes. You got their whole relationship just from what she was thinking, the way we saw her behave." Even her occasional moments of almost maternal compassion toward Vickie "don't redeem her for everything she's done."

Murder is sort of the Young family business, as Ben's mother Felicity Young writes crime fiction. One day, he was at her house and, scanning through a pile of research materials, he picked up a book about real-life female serial killers. "I found it fascinating, because women tend to kill for different reasons than why men do, and after I read the book, I decided to do more research, and that's when I discovered the unfortunate phenomenon of couples who kill."

Serial-killer couples are a rare but global phenomenon. Fernandez and Beck. Hindley and Brady. The Gallegos. The Wests. Even in Young's home country, there were the Birnies, who murdered four women in five weeks in late 1986. Young studied nine such cases in research for Hounds of Love, without taking anything directly from any one story, "more to get a feel for the psychology of the people involved. … For me, the film is about control and controlling relationships, and one of the things I'm trying to say is, if you're in a controlling relationship, get out."

“For me, the film is about control and controlling relationships, and one of the things I’m trying to say is, if you’re in a controlling relationship, get out.”

In tone, Hounds of Love sits readily alongside such recent bleak Australian crime dramas like Animal Kingdom and Snowtown. That's something Young ascribes to the low-budget realities of moviemaking in Australia. "We all have to make movies for no money, compared to movies in the UK and America. In the more cartoonish versions of these films, they all depend on big set-pieces, which take a long time to shoot, and have a lot of locations and a lot of effects. In Australia, we're not afforded that luxury, so we have to write about characters. We have to make the tension come from the people."

Historically, serial killers have most often been a part of U.S. film culture. Yet Young kept the action to his native Perth, and wrote the story as a 1980s period piece. That decision was not just to take the massive scriptwriting inconvenience of cell phones and social media out of the equation, which Young called "a nightmare to write. ... This kind of story would be very difficult to make without having some kind of digital aspect these days, and I just find that really boring."

While removing those elements was a beneficial side-effect of the era, it also allowed him to catch a particular moment in Australian history. He said, "The Eighties were a real boom time in Perth. We had the America's Cup, and that's when Western Australia started to form its identity, so it seemed like an interesting time when a big country town transforms into a city."

That said, he added, "On a more boring but practical level, we had no money to make the film." With a huge number of Perth suburbs that look exactly like they did in the Eighties, "it was a very cheap way for us to come up with a distinctive look. Costumes from the Eighties are cheap to buy, and it was also an excuse to have some pretty cool music."

Hounds of Love opens this weekend. For our review and showtimes, visit our listings page.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw.

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True Crime, SXSW, SXSW Film, SXSW 2017, Hounds of Love, Ben Young

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