Hounds of Love. 2017. Directed & Written by Ben Young.
Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas, Harrison Gilbertson, Liam Graham, & Lisa Bennet.
Factor 30 Films
Rated R. 108 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: This discussion contains major spoilers for the film, so if you haven’t actually seen it yet, turn back. Lest ye be spoiled, forever!
There’s a horrifying real life feeling about director-writer Ben Young’s searing dramatic horror Hounds of Love. Despite the fact it’s a gruelling 108 minutes of cinema, the film brought me back to it, again and again. Because underlying all the terror is a well written story, the plot and its themes digging at the darkest parts of our humanity, the most primitive bits in the brain.
While this tale might feel familiar to those who know the story of Cameron and Janice Hooker, who abducted Colleen Stan, it isn’t actually based on that, and it’s easy enough to see how far the two are apart. Even if Young got the seed of the idea from this, which I’m not sure he did at all, there’s not much of a real connection outside those large themes at play.
At the core of the film is the question, what if some love is based in a dichotomy of power and desire? One lover, willing to do anything and everything for the other, despite how horrifically far things go. When a husband and wife serial killing team, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry & Emma Booth), kidnap young Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) off the street, the girl is drawn into the psychosexual dynamic between them, and we wait to see if she can survive it, or if it swallows her whole.
Love. Power. Obsession. Desire, or lust. Domestic violence.
So much comes together in the premise that Hounds of Love could easily get lost amongst its own thematic considerations. Yet it never does. We start out with normality, everywhere: late ’80s, in Perth, Australia, on a regular, slightly lower class neighbourhood where people come and go and nobody sticks their nose too far into the business of others except only for a momentary glance of their lives. This is where the everday-ness, the banality, the ordinary qualities of the evil we come to experience are lying in wait in these neighbourhoods, OUR neighbourhoods – this could be anywhere, not just the Land Down Under – right under our own noses.
This is where we cross into the domestic violence and the misogyny that’s everywhere, though particularly in smaller neighbourhoods, exactly like this one. To what lengths can the control of misogyny go? John and Evelyn’s relationship is the centrepiece. The misogyny internalises in Evelyn, whose treatment of Vicki is then reflective of his mistreatment against her as his wife. She has no power in her relationship, so the danger of Vicki being there is that Evelyn wields power only over her; she doesn’t even treat the girl as good as the dog.
This brings up an important parallel, considering the film’s title. Women are juxtaposed with dogs. We see that Evelyn wants a child, and John isn’t interested. He points out that her dog has shit on the floor, illustrating it as a symbol of her inability to take care of a child. In a way, he sees Evelyn as that dog, a helpless creature at the end of his whims, and when the dog shits on the floor it’s the same as if she’d done it. Moreover, the treatment of dogs here by John is also indicative of his inhumanity. As a society, we often gauge someone’s compassion for animals with their compassion for their fellow humans, something John obviously lacks. Finally, dogs and humans are very much alike, here in particular women and dogs, in that their loyalty can be undying, no matter how awfully they’re treated by those lording over them in the power-role of master. Just as the beaten dog wanders like a zombie back to its owner, so does a beaten wife like Evelyn never, no matter how mad or fed up or abused she is, leave her husband, coming back solely out of worry for survival, among other things.
John sees women as interchangeable, and this is ultimately what ends him, as his psychological grip on Evelyn finally looses and lets go. Before that happens, Evelyn, as his wife, is figuratively chained to that bed. Whereas Vicki is there physically, the wife is caught there symbolically. Her shackles are invisible yet no less actual than those around the wrists of the girl. She’s likewise given the chance to have a child, symbolised by the kidnapping, forcibly confining Vicki in a sick, twisted, Freudian nightmare – rotten and bastardised visions of the father, the mother, and the daughter. Luckily, both Vicki and Evelyn are unwilling to let the power of a man hold them down. Despite the wife’s complicity in what has gone on, it’s still a testament to her innate strength that she’s able to do the right thing after all.
One of the most telling moments is a scene where John runs into a few local lads to whom he obviously owes money. What we witness is how, around other men, he is a pitiful creature. He has no power over other males, so he exerts a brutal power over women. This, like Evelyn with Vicki, is his only means of gaining control or power within his sad life, conflating his personality with misogynistic violence.
On top of all this is a minimalist setting and score, to an extent, the dialogue, as well, avoiding too much fat on the bones, offering only the meatiest bits to help the viewer gradually sink into the devastating characterisations. in addition, the minimalism is punctuated and thrown into a disrupted state of chaos when bursts of harsh violence explode across the screen, female bodies taking the brunt of wounded male ego and patriarchal control, unpredictable at times as much as it is savage.
Hounds of Love is, hands down, one of the best horror films of the 2010s. Surprisingly, this is director-writer Ben Young’s debut feature, only making me more inclined to keep an eye out for whatever he does next. He’s a fascinating talent. He could’ve easily turned this into an exploitation flick, which isn’t always bad. And he certainly verges on it, teetering on the edge. But he hones in on the drama above the violence, though the violent elements remain in tact. This allows the characters, the performances of those characters, and all the aesthetic treats shine, rather than falling into a mess of blood and horrific imagery that serves no purpose. Young helps us take a look at the control within a dangerous, psychosexual relationship, inherent in domestic violence and the seduction of misogynistic men.
This is a must see, and no better time than Halloween! Watch this alone, in the dark, somewhere quiet. Let it sink into you, under your skin. If you aren’t affected, maybe check your pulse.