Overview: A murderous couple abduct a troubled teen who has only two choices: escape or die. Gunpowder & Sky; 2017; Not Rated; 108 minutes.
Hot Hot Hell: There’s something about Australian crime dramas that makes them seem even more brutal than the average fare. Perhaps it’s the apparent stifling temperature adding a sheen of sweat to the anger, like viewing the film through mirage from the heat rising from the pavement. Hounds of Love is one such film whose violent content is only exacerbated by its location: Perth, 1987.
It’s Christmas, only it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry) have a Christmas tree up with a single present underneath and a beaten girl tied up in the next room. Christmas carols play as they tidy up the bloody tissues and sex toys from the night before. This is our introduction to the deranged couple whose relationship centers around the thrill of the kill—picking up young girls and torturing them as playthings before putting their bodies in the ground. On the outside they’re normal. Here is their coffee and breakfast, this is their dog, there is their laundry. They’re just a couple who fight a lot, the neighbours think.
But there are signs, especially in Evelyn, that something is not right. A compulsive need to straighten objects is seen in the peripheral, never overdone by Emma Booth who gives a stunning performance. Booth channels Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, taking a notable physical transformation looking rough and ill, a woman who is simply surviving in her environment. Sparks of rage fly from her unpredictably and she is desperately hungry with a void she cannot fill. John is the one who brings terror in his step. He’s thin and slimy, perpetually pleased with himself and his disgusting behaviour. He obtains power through punishment and love through manipulation, and is the clear ringleader of the circus act.
The Mark: At first, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is a stereotypical teen. She’s distracted in love and has a bad attitude having a rough go of dealing with her parents’ separation. She’s daddy’s little girl in the worst ways, the kind on film that make mothers look like monsters even when they’re trying their best. It’s no surprise then when she, held captive by her mother who’s disappointed by her grades, yells about the ruination of her life and determinedly decides to sneak out to a party. Startled by a car of rowdy boys and a dark street, she is pressed to accept a ride to Evelyn and John’s under the guise of buying some weed. This interaction does plenty to show that Vicki’s instincts are engaged, but the couple’s worked their angle to perfection and she’s eventually won over by their insistence.
Even though she falls for the schtick, Vicki is one of the best victims of recent memory. She’s street smart and observant, reacting to her gut and hesitating on every count but noticing just too late that something evil is afoot. Once she finds herself in her personal hell, she is constantly seeking an out, some way to save herself or ease her captors’ violent tempers.
What she sees is that there is a fracture in the sick relationship of her abductors. She sees it and gambles her life by seeking to widen it. There is plenty for Vicki to work with. The couple’s relationship is extremely volatile and abusive. Their companionship is fueled by heightened sexuality and gratification of it from causing pain to their victims, but they also fight and beat each other. Evelyn is just as guilty as John but she’s also trapped by his manipulative dominance. Her personal goals are on hold because of him, and there is a point of jealousy about the young girls as she fingers her post-pregnancy stretch marks and c-section scar in the mirror. They are younger, prettier, more wanted by John. Their relationship is all kinds of sick and codependent, and Vicki latches on for dear life by whispering the truths that Evelyn’s quiet inner voice is already telling her. Vicki just needs one moment with just one person on her side—it is her only chance to make it through these hellish days. Freedom is so close to her. She hears it through the walls as airplanes fly by. She smells it through the window in the bathroom. It is just beyond her reach. Ashleigh Cummings does a powerful job in this role, which will hopefully pave the way to greater roles in her bright future.
Peeping Tom: First time director Ben Young wants you to know right away that as the viewer, you are complicit in the acts that are about to follow. The film opens in extreme slow motion, lingering up and down young female bodies in a way that makes you feel lecherous. As Vicki is chained to the bed for the first time, screaming in terror, we watch from another room, and we keep watching to the end, if we can stomach it.
As brutal as the film is, most of the depraved acts are implied rather than shown. The actions that the couple commit are done in such a matter-of-fact way, made cold in their habit and precision. We are only treated to shots of clean-up, letting our imaginations fill in what horrific, heinous acts might have occurred. Those with a penchant for true crime and horror will have no problem filling in those gaps with unspeakable ideas. Otherwise, Young excels at finding fear in simple shots and the mundane. The tension is felt from the first moment of the film and builds to an incredible climax in the last 20 minutes.
Like all good thrillers, the themes in Hounds of Love run deep. There are moments that speak to the sacrificial nature of motherhood, the complexity of romantic and familial relationships, and divorce. All three women in the movie want or require something from their partners: Vicki’s boyfriend hooks her up with weed and does her homework. Her mother tries in vain to build her own life without her estranged husband’s wealth. Evelyn is trapped in an abusive relationship that provides for her but holds her back from what she really wants but can’t admit she’ll never have—her children. All three women then distantly judge each other for their choices and their wants. But as there are more pressing matters at hand, namely Vicki’s survival and the feasibility of the couple’s lifestyle. These ideas aren’t explored as deeply as they might be otherwise. Still, they play a big part in the characters’ interactions and add a richness to what could have easily been trashy criminal violence for its own sake.
Overall: Hounds of Love is a difficult film to watch, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Ben Young manages to put together a satisfying, competent crime thriller that is full of dedicated performances and exhilarating tension.
Featured Imaged: Gunpowder & Sky