In Greek mythology Cerberus is a three-headed monster hound that guards the gates of hell, hence the phrase “hounds of hell”. In director Ben Young’s horror film Hounds of Love three characters are grafted together for the sake of–I hesitate to even go there–love.

The film opens in a mundane, slightly gritty neighborhood. The camera swoops down over a barely distinguishable couple in a parked car and into a school yard where teenage girls are exercising. It lingers on midriffs and lithe limbs in slow motion and intermittent stills are thrown in giving the scene a herky-jerky unease. Tracers emanate from nubile bodies.

A bell rings and the girls disperse to their own cars or to those of parents and friends. One girl walks down the street alone. A nondescript car follows at a respectful distance and gradually catches up as she strays further from the school. We catch unceremonious glimpses of the driver and his passenger. A friendly woman’s voice calls from the passenger window, offering a ride. It is hot.

Hounds of Love is not your typical horror film. There are no bells and whistles here. Based on the crimes of Australian serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie, it is  economical to the extreme. And boy is it brutal–but not with the traditional horror signatures of blood and guts. The violence is largely psychological, though we see disconcerting evidence of the physical kind too, e.g., split lips, torture devices, bloody wadded tissues strewn about–and then there are the screams, muffled by low flying airplanes.

Stephen Curry is appallingly evil and scary good as psychopathic sadist John White. He has the fetid look and id of a weirdo hanging out at a drugstore magazine stand. Interacting with boorish neighborhood thugs he bears his underbelly submissively, but with his wife–and partner in rape and murder–he is, predictably, all alpha male. We are repelled by him but understand him nonetheless. He gets his jollies from dominating, humiliating and killing young women.

His wife Evelyn (Emma Booth in a tour de force performance) is more complex. As a woman, I found her particularly deplorable. I didn’t want to understand her, let alone empathize with her, and yet I did, which makes her performance all the more remarkable–and horrifying. There is a mantra among thespians: “acting is listening; acting is reacting”. Booth is a masterful listener. Her lines are sparse and she never anticipates them. It is her expressions and her granite hard eyes, softening here and there, just a bit, that tell her story.

Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is the couple’s victim. I say this unapologetically. She is a teenager, after all, and not nearly as worldly as the semi bad ass she tries to project. That is not to say that she is stupid. Hardly. Cummings is convincing as the resourceful, insightful Vicki. And she is brave. She tries to physically fight off her captors but, of course, it’s two against one. Gagged and chained to a bed, she could just check out and resign herself to a hopeless fate. She doesn’t. Instead she summons her considerable wile, will and intuition in a valiant effort to manipulate the twisted relationship.

This is a stunning debut film for director Ben Young and he is no stranger to the subject matter. Yes he is Australian and keenly aware of the Birnie murders, but perhaps more importantly, his mother is a true crime writer. From an early age he has been schooled in deviant psychology. Young made Hounds of Love on the cheap and the budget constraints magnify its stark, hyper-realistic affect. There are a few sly stylistic flourishes though, such as the slo-mo opening sequence.

If all of this has a familiar ring, don’t be too complacent. If you’ve seen Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer then you’re hip to program. Otherwise, prepare to be overwhelmed.