It’s one thing for a series of brutal crimes to inspire a film; it’s quite another for that film to become one of the most highly-praised horror films of the year. Yet that was the case with Hounds of Love, the 2016 feature debut by Australian writer/director Ben Young. While the filmmaker has stated that Hounds of Love is a work of fiction that draws inspiration from a number of real-life killer couple cases, its premise strongly resembles one of the most gut-wrenching crime sprees in Australian history: the so-called “Moorhouse Murders” committed by Catherine and David Birnie in 1986.
Catherine and David Birnie claimed their first victim on October 6, when they offered to sell 22-year-old Mary Nielson some cheap tires for her car. At the time, David was working at a place that sold spare parts. When Mary came by, he told her that the tires were at his personal residence. What she found instead was a house of torture and death.
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Mary was pulled into the home on Moorhouse Street and held at knifepoint, tortured and raped by David while Catherine watched. The Birnies took her to a Gleneagles National Park where they raped her again before strangling her with a nylon rope and stabbing her in the heart. They then buried their victim in a shallow grave and parked her car near police headquarters.
David and Catherine then set about on a brutal killing spree. Over the next five weeks, the couple claimed three more victims before their final target, Kate Moir, managed to escape and alert the authorities.
According to Ruth Wykes, author of the book Women Who Kill, “There was nothing random about what they did.” The Birnies had planned everything out in advance, with the intention of getting away with the “perfect murder”–not just once, but time after time. Even as they buried Mary Nielson in Gleneagles National Park, they planned for her grave to be only one of many. The Birnies were going to erect their own private graveyard of victims in the park.
The couple had a code phrase. When they picked up a girl, Catherine would determine whether she seemed like an ideal victim, and if she approved, she would let her husband know that she had “the munchies”. If those words were uttered, the girl’s fate was sealed.
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The couple’s second victim was Susannah Candy, who was only 15 years old at the time the couple picked her up while hitchhiking along Stirling Highway outside of Perth. They took their victims back to their nondescript home on Moorhouse Street in a Perth suburb. The media later dubbed the house a “murder chamber,” even though two of the victims were killed and buried in Gleneagles National Park, after being held, tortured, and raped in the Birnies’ home.
After claiming their first victim, the killer couple added a twist to their sadistic plot. They would force their subsequent victims to call or write letters to friends and family saying that they were fine, and giving false accounts of their whereabouts, in order to throw suspicion away from the Birnies.
Only 10 days after murdering Susannah Candy, the Birnies picked up 31-year-old Noelene Patterson, whose car had run out of gas while she was on her way home from work. According to later accounts, the Birnies initially planned to kill Patterson that same night, but David became attached to her and decided to keep her for three days.
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Patterson’s ordeal might have gone on longer if it hadn’t been for Catherine Birnie’s jealousy. Seeing her husband’s fondness for the woman, Catherine demanded that David either kill Patterson right away or Catherine would take her own life. David immediately gave Noelene Patterson an overdose of sleeping pills and then strangled her to death. Her body was buried in the national park alongside the others.
Only a few days later, they kidnapped their fourth victim, 21-year-old Denise Brown, who was waiting for a bus. Taking her to the woods, the couple raped her in the car before dragging her from the vehicle and stabbing her in the neck. Believing her to be dead, they started to bury her, but Denise Brown sat up in her own grave, prompting David to bludgeon her to death with an axe.
According to some accounts, this last encounter may have soured Catherine’s taste for their sadistic games, which may be a part of why their next victim, 17-year-old Kate Moir, was also their last. Most people, however, attribute Kate’s survival to the young woman’s own wits. From the moment David’s knife was at her throat, Kate Moir began calculating her chances for survival. David Birnie forced her to call her mother. Kate told her mother that she had been drinking and was staying with a friend, hoping that her mother would find the message suspicious, since Moir wasn’t a drinker.
The next day, Kate managed to escape from the bedroom where she was confined and run to a nearby shop. She then contacted authorities and provided them with a wealth of information about the couple and the home where she had been held to corroborate her story: from the VHS tape that the Birnies liked to put on (news.com.au reports Rambo, The Guardian reports Rocky) to the drawings she had made during her captivity and the location of the sleeping pills she had pretended to take before hiding them in her mattress.
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Following Kate Moir’s harrowing escape, the Birnies were arrested and convicted of their crimes. David Birnie confessed to the four murders and pleaded guilt at trial. Catherine was found guilty and sentenced to four life terms. Although the pair were only tried for these murders, it has since been rumored that they were also responsible for the deaths of Barbara Western and Cheryl Renwick, who also disappeared in Perth in 1986.
After nearly 20 years in prison, David Birnie hanged himself in 2005. Catherine Birnie remains incarcerated to this day, becoming only the third woman in the history of Australia to be marked “never to be released,” thanks in part to a continuing campaign on the part of Kate Moir to keep her tormenter behind bars.
All photos: Murderpedia