IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1987 Perth, Austraila, John and Evelyn White are a pair of serial killers who target teenage girls. One night, Vicki Maloney, who impetuously sneaks out of the house for a party her mother has forbidden her to go to, is lured by the pair into their clutches and must endure a horrific nightmare of confinement and torture. While her estranged parents and her boyfriend desperately try to learn what has happened and what can be done to find her, Vicki doesn’t think that she’ll survive, but then she begins to notice that the Whites see to have growing problems of their own….
I hadn’t heard anything about Hounds Of Love when I noticed that it was showing at a cinema relatively near to me, a cinema that most weeks tends to show something that is out of the mainstream, and I may have been just a tad disappointed to find out that it had nothing to do with one of my favourite female singers. In fact both serial killers and kidnaps have probably been done to death on screen, and you can be forgiven for thinking that, even though it’s apparently inspired by true events, Hounds Of Love isn’t anything new, but actually after ten or so minutes it became obvious to me that it was a film which was doing its very best to bring a fresh approach to its subject matter, and was mostly succeeding in this. A very impressive debut feature by writer/director Ben Young who obviously didn’t have much of a budget at his disposal, it’s grim, uncomfortable and at times downright nasty, even though it follows in the honourable tradition of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence Of The Lambs in choosing not to show most of its violence yet leaving you with the impression that you’ve seen a much more graphic film than you actually have.
It begins with slow motion shots of girls playing basketballl, including a close-up of a ‘covered’ breast which seems oddly gratuitous considering the way things are generally handled, though it’s not as if I really minded,and I suppose these shots could be from the point of a certain couple in a nearby car. One of the girls is picked up by the car and taken to a house by the couple, a couple who we soon learn are the serial killers in the story – or rather a serial killer and his accomplice. John is the one who does the actual murdering, and he soon goes off to kill the girl offscreen amidst much screaming and shots of bloody towels and chained hands. Now I’m sure some viewers will be disappointed by the fact that we don’t see the actual killing, but I think it was a good move. I’m certainly not one of those people who think horror films can turn people into murderers, but I do think that they can desensitise, and I say that because I think I’m desensitised too. Like probably all of us on HCF and indeed probably some of you who are reading this, I’ve seen so much gore and brutality that it’s getting harder for me to be actually shocked by something I see in a film. As in a later torture scene where, after a shot of Vicki’s screaming face [and this particular scream really is blood curdling], a door shuts before we see anything, Hounds Of Love leaves a great deal up to the imagination, and to my mind is all the better for it, though I know that some may find its approach a bit timid and that opinion is perfectly valid too.
The camera slowly glides around props while we get to know – just a bit – John and Evelyn, a great deal being either said or hinted at by just looks and manner. We do cut back and forth between the two and Vicki, who’s first seen messing around with her boyfriend whom she gets to write homework essays for her, but it soon becomes apparent that the film is as much from the point of view of Evelyn as it is Vicki’s. While she’s certainly aiding John in his terrible doings [though mostly when she’s in a drug or alchohol-induced stupor], she’s also clearly in an abusive marriage with a guy whom she first got together with when she was 13 – albeit also a guy who seems to have rescued her from a horrid life at her old home. So we have not one but two main points of view in this film and it certainly makes things more interesting. The film also avoids the pitfull of making Evelyn overly sympathetic. We are given vague reasons for why she does what she does, and that’s enough. I recently watched a Swedish thriller called The Hour Of The Lynx and felt very uncomfortable at the way it tried to make excuses for and make us feel very sorry for a person who murdered two people in their house. Hounds Of Love just about holds back on doing that and asks the viewer to decide. While I tended to veer from being frightened of her to pitying her, I could never really decide what my feelings about Evelyn were and I felt that was exactly right.
With a mother who walked out on her and her dad when she was young, teenaged Vicki doesn’t have too happy a life either, even before she’s given a lift to a party by the White’s. At their house she buys some weed from them and is given a drink which of course makes her all weak and woozy, though not so weak and woozy that she fails to notices some child porn DVDs on the floor of the lounge in front of the DVD player. She’s dragged to a room and chained down, and this is observed at a distance through two open doorways rather than with the usual cuts and close-ups to try and enhance the action. Evelyn fellates John, but John is clearly just as sexually excited by the fact that he’s got another teenaged girl to abuse – and then we cut to closer shots of Vicki in terrible distress. This is smart filmmaking, with unusual but appropriate choice of shots and shooting style. This moment is followed by a very odd series of shots of suburban life in extreme slow motion, innocuous, everyday shots made strange by the slow motion and very sinister because of what we’ve just seen. What horrors could be going on inside these other houses, and involve these other people?
Soon Vicki gets some idea of the relationship that John and Evelyn have and decides to try to use this knowledge to her advantage, while her folks and boyfriend are trying to find her. Plot developments may not all be stunningly original but character arcs certainly progress logically and there’s interesting, if sometimes horrid, detail here and there. During a rape scene for example – yes, there is a rape scene and it’s very brief but quite hard to watch because of the considerable tension that’s been built up – the action is interrupted by something occuring that I’ve never seen before but which probably happens quite often during such an event. It’s unpleasant but entirely believable. Less believable is the idea that Evelyn is shocked when John rapes Vicki, as if he’d never done that to any of the previous girls. In fact I begun to wonder why they were initially abducting these girls in the first place, the one aspect of the film which could have been made more explicit and not so tiptoed around. And the final act does progress pretty much as you would expect, though I don’t really know how else matters could have realistically ended – and grubby realism is generally the order of the day though at times the film has a rather glossy look which some may feel is at odds with the subject matter. I mostly appreciated how much it was trying not to look like a really cheap production, and Michael McDermott’s cinematography is undoubtedly first class throughout, with some interesting choice of lenses, angles and the like without usually drawing attention to themselves. Dan Luscombe’s bizarre score, replete with odd-souding, erratic heart beats, also works very well, while you’ll never listen to Knights In White Satin by The Moody Blues the same way again.
So, despite a few script weaknesses, all in all Young has put together a neat little gem here, aided immensely by three excellent lead performances. Ashleigh Cummings is good enough so that you can actually tell that Vicki is noticing what things are like between John and Evelyn and thinking of what to say to Evelyn, Emma Booth conveys Evelyn’s internal struggles and torment, and Stephen Curry is both contemptibly pathetic and absolutely terrifying. For some, even with most of the horrid stuff taking place offscreen, there will still be a whiff of exploitation of the nastiest kind about a film which still resolutely belongs in the ‘torture porn’ subgenre [a subgenre I myself am sometimes in two minds about], but that’s probably unavoidable, and Hounds Of Love deals with its subject matter just about as best as a film can do. If you can get past what it’s about, there really is a great deal to admire, if not neccessarily enjoy. Young’s next film is a Hollywood sci-fi/horror called Extinction which is already in post production and, while he didn’t write the script this time, I’m still really looking forward to seeing it.