In this terrifying Australian film, schoolgirls are abducted and murdered by a man and woman living out a sick fantasy. It’s difficult to watch, but its themes are haunting
Hounds Of Love
Starring: Emma Booth Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry
Directed by: Ben Young
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 108 minutes
By Jay Stone
Any discussion of the Australian movie Hounds of Love should start with this caveat: this is a horrifying and disturbing film about the abduction, torture, rape and murder of schoolgirls. On the other hand, it is also a very accomplished movie that raises deep and haunting issues about family, manipulation and guilt. Enter, but enter at your peril.
It begins with several frightening scenes. The first is a super slow-motion pan of a group of girls skipping in a playground. The camera caresses their legs and breasts. Then we come to a boarded-up house near the airport — planes overhead are one of the tropes of Hounds of Love, signifying escape, perhaps, or just bad neighborhoods — with locks on the inside doors and windows. An animated version of A Christmas Carol is on TV. It’s commonplace and common; the killers take their shoes off at the door so they won’t dirty the carpets.
A blur of scenes follows: a slow walk into a room, bloody towels on the floor, a dildo, a woman washing sheets and hanging them on a line, a man walking into the woods and digging a grave.
We’ll pause here to allow the less committed cinephiles time to leave the room, although it helps to know that most of what we see in Hounds of Love is similarly elusive. Like the 2015 film Room, it’s mostly through hints — but also, it should be noted, terrifying screams that wrench your heart — that we see what’s going on. A man will enter a room and close the door, and in the next scene, a woman is lying in bed with a bleeding mouth.
The movie is set in Perth in December 1987 (it echoes a true-life case of the time). John (Stephen Curry), a skinny intense kind of monster, and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth) are driving around, looking for young woman to abduct and kill. They offer a lift to Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a teenager who has sneaked out of her house to go to a forbidden party. They grab her, drag her into a room with boarded-up windows, and chain her to the bed, all to the lush orchestration of the Procol Harum tune Knights in White Satin.
Vicki’s terror infuses the rest of Hounds of Love, but first-time filmmaker Ben Young builds into his story a complex undercurrent of personalities and themes. Vickiehas run away from home because her mother (Susie Porter) has just separated from her father and they live together in fraught disharmony. I’m not sure if she actually says “You ruined my life,” but she almost does.
In John and Evelyn, she has become part of a different, evil household, and a different, evil kind of ruin. He’s a weak sadist whom we see being bullied by neighbors for all the noise coming from the house — some screams can’t be muffled — and by some local toughs to whom he owes money. But he’s lord and master to Evelyn, whom he has been grooming since she was 13. She is dependent on him; it’s a sick love and their complicit smiles when Vickie is securely trussed and gagged is one of the most frightening things in the film.
However, Evelyn is uneasy John’s insane fantasy: she’s jealous of the schoolgirls he abuses, and she has two estranged children of her own (the bedroom prison has boxes of toys in the closet and strange, frightening childhood figurines on the dresser.) When she makes John’s breakfast, she ensures the pieces of toast are lined up exactly; later, we see scars on her back that are never explained because they don’t need to be.
It is in this crack that Vicki sees some hope. “He’s just using you,” she whispers to Evelyn. Later there is a devastating moment of something close to sisterhood when the gagged Vicki nods towards the floor, where her underpants have been flung, so Evelyn can see what happened with John while she was out of the house.
The psychology of her tormentors is not the only weapon she has. Vicki turns out to be an observant and clever young woman, although it may not be enough, and the slow dawning of her sense of resignation matches our own. Young adds nods to some famous abduction movies — a near escape from a bathroom in Fargo, a misdirection borrowed from Silence of the Lambs — that remind us that there is a long history of these stories. Women are held prisoner and other women must free them. And sometimes, it’s impossible to watch.
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