Hounds of Love *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ben Young.
Written by: Ben Young.
Starring: Emma Booth (Evelyn White), Ashleigh Cummings (Vicki Maloney), Stephen Curry (John White), Susie Porter (Maggie), Damian de Montemas (Trevor), Harrison Gilbertson (Jason), Fletcher Humphrys (Gary), Steve Turner (Troy), Holly Jones (Miss Martin), Michael Muntz (Sergeant Mathews), Marko Jovanovic (Sergeant Henderson), Liam Graham (Pete), Lisa Bennet (Gabby Donovan).
Kudos to the people who decided to release Ben Young’s Hounds of Love on Mother’s Day weekend in North America for having the sickest sense of humor imaginable. This unrelentingly grim and bleak story of a pair of serial killers (loosely based on a real case from the 1980s) does have two mothers in it. One is the type of mother you expect to see in a movie – whose teenage daughter goes missing, and ends up doing any and everything she can to get her back. The other, is one of the sick psychopaths who kidnapped the teenage girl in the first place, and along with her husband torture and rape her – and are certainly going to kill her as well. After all, in the first sequence, we see them do the same thing to another teenage girl. I’m not quite sure I buy the final scenes of Hound of Love – the only moments where these two mothers are near each other – but up until then, Hounds of Love is certainly among the creepiest films of the year.
The film opens, and will return to throughout the film, by using a slow motion panning shot – taking in a group of teenage girls playing netball. This could be an innocent scene, of course, but it isn’t the way its shot – the slow motion heightens the sense of voyeurism, and the camera is not focusing on the teenage girls face, as them as individuals, but basically just as meat. This is how John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) see them, and sure enough, it’s going to be one of these teenage girls they kidnap, rape and kill in the opening sequence. This was the 1980s after all, a slightly more innocent time – and while someone like John may not have been able to convince a teenage girl to willingly get in the car with him, he has Emma, and she seems nice. Who’s ever heard of a woman killer? This is the same routine they’ll pull on Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) a few days later. Vicki sneaks out of her mom’s house to go to a party – she’s pissed at her, for various reasons, and is walking when John and Emma pull up in their car. They offer to take her back to theirs for some pot – and then she can get to her party. She quickly finds herself bound to a bed, and fighting for her life as her day’s long ordeal is just starting. Most of the rest of the movie is set in that house – with those three people, only occasionally cutting away to Vicki’s frantic mother, trying to get people to take her daughter’s disappearance seriously (again, this was the 1980s, when cops thought every missing kid was a runaway, and didn’t take it seriously until someone turned up dead).
The film really is a psychological portrait of three people in that house together for those few days. Two of those portraits are expertly drawn, but precisely what we expect them to be. Cummings is terrific as Vicki, the survivor who does everything she can to survive – she attempts to get away, and when she can’t, she does an interesting job at trying to sow the seeds of discord between her captors – reading their needs, and responding. She bends, but doesn’t break. Curry’s John is also an excellent performance, but the kind of serial killer we’ve seen in films before as well. He really is a pathetic, weak man outside his own home, but inside, he controls everything with sadistic glee. It is Emma Booth’s performance as Evelyn – and her character – that makes Hounds of Love not only work, but do so in a way I haven’t quite seen before in a film like this. Evelyn is not a survivor girl like Vicki, nor purely sadistic like John – but a strange mix of the two in a way that is fascinating. She is certainly a victim of domestic abuse at John’s hands – both physical and psychological, and in some ways, she does what she needs to survive being with him. Yet, she is also a willing participant in every aspect of what happens to their victims – the kidnappings, the rapes, and the killings themselves. There is a part of her as sadistic as John is – her anger really flaring up when she thinks John actually thinks Vicki is attractive, and may want to cut Emma out of the loop for a moment – her whole identity is circled around being the only one John wants forever. Well that, and being a mother. We never see Evelyn’s kids in the movie, but they are brought up throughout the film. She has, unsurprisingly lost custody of them – and now dotes on her dog as she waits in vain for her kids to return (it is not a friendly dog).
This is the directorial debut of Ben Young – who for the most part does an excellent job of not making an exploitation film out of the material. There is nothing overly graphic in the film at all (there is one moment, fairly early, right after Vicki is tied down that crosses that line, and hits a wrong note, but it’s the only one). Yet, there is no mistaking what happens, and it hits hard even if we do not see it in all its grisly details. As a filmmaker, he does a great job of showing the banality of this place, the harsh sun, the interchangeable houses, the dirt and grim of it all. He may overuse the slow motion panning shots, but there’s a reason beyond it looks cool (take that, Zack Snyder!). The film isn’t an easy sit, but it shouldn’t be. It’s also one you’re not likely to forget.