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The Guardian Reviews Release The Hounds

​With its mix of staged horror, terrified celebrities and gory production value, ITV2’s gameshow is a proper cult oddity, writes Stuart Heritage.

There is a part of all of us, I think, that just wants to see people get chased down and torn to shreds by dogs. There should be reality shows devoted to it, and worthy BBC4 documentaries where David Starkey frantically attempts to explain the history of being chased by dogs while being systematically hunted down by a feral pack of Alsatians. There should be Channel 5 talking-head clip shows called things like The 50 Funniest Human Innards Ever Rendered Unrecognisable by the Nightmarish Fangs of Ravenous Hellbeasts.

The closest we’ll probably ever get to this sparkling vision of televised utopia, though, is ITV2’s Release the Hounds, which reaches the end of its second series tomorrow. Release the Hounds is a sorely overlooked gem of a show. Hand on heart, there is no other programme like it.

Release the Hounds, if you’re new, sits on the crossroads between I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! and The Blair Witch Project. Contestants are shoved into a forest at dusk and ostensibly left to blunder across various trials, each of them packed to the brim with knowing horror tropes. Gradually they become frightened and disorientated, and that’s usually when the dogs come in. If they can outrun the dogs, they win money. If they can’t, the dogs pull them to the ground and savage them. It’s brilliant.

Described as bluntly as this, there’s nothing to separate Release the Hounds from something like Fear Factor, the gratuitously disgusting mid-noughties sensation where contestants would earn money by standing on a tightrope and getting pelted with gallons of cockroach vomit. The beauty of Release the Hounds, though, is in how deftly it blurs reality with fiction.

There’s a staginess to the show. It’s conspicuously edited throughout, as if it knows that the viewer is as much of a participant as the contestant. The recent Halloween special – which you should really watch on demand if you get the chance – was a masterpiece in this respect. At one point, contestant Joey Essex was ambushed by strangers and bundled away. What we saw, though, was an impressive collage of point-of-view shots – clearly filmed separately – cut with bursts of screams.

Later on, he was apparently killed by a falling television. The attention to detail here was perfect – stagehands rushed in, transmission was cut – but it was enhanced by the fact that it seemed a surprise to host Reggie Yates, too. Clearly it was a stunt, but the constant blurring of who knew what at any point helped to make it a genuinely unsettling experience.

And it’s clearly made by people who love horror. Not only are the production values fantastic, but the wealth of references from which the programme is able to pull is just as impressive. Release the Hounds is Saw. It’s Dario Argento. It’sThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s Ghostwatch. It’s It Follows. Yes, it’s an ITV2 gameshow that sporadically makes fun of the fact that Joey Essex thinks vampires drink milk, but it feels like a real labour of love.

The best horror movies have started out as cult oddities, and that’s exactly what Release the Hounds is.

Watch it here: https://youtu.be/ZG5eY4p_un4