“Hounds of Love” is an Australian crime-drama which stars Ashleigh Cummings as a schoolgirl, Vicki, who is kidnapped and subsequently abused by a serial killer couple.
The first thing that I will say about this film is that it isn’t for the feint-hearted. The majority of “Hounds of Love” takes place in the house where Vicki is being restrained; depicting psychological torture, implied physical torture, and Vicki’s various attempts to escape. However, in all fairness the worst of what happens isn’t shown on screen. Director Ben Young does his best to lock the audience into Vicki’s perspective to make the experience as uncomfortable as possible, but he doesn’t force you to watch every second of anguish that Vicki endures. The meat of the film revolves around the aftermath of horrible moments rather than the moments themselves, and it’s deliberate pacing rather than brutal on-screen violence which makes this movie incredibly hard to watch.
My favourite thing about “Hounds of Love” is that it isn’t a manipulative film. At no point does it seem like the purpose of the movie is to shock the audience, despite the fact that the material lends itself to this approach. It feels as though Ben Young’s goal was to convey the futility of the situation and try to give the audience a glimpse of how such an ordeal would feel for the person experiencing it, rather than to make people squirm in their seats. I appreciate this because unfortunately there are people in real life who are kidnapped, beaten, and then raped on a daily basis for unfathomable periods of time – in my opinion, if you’re going to make a movie which portrays this then you should do so with honesty. There’s no need to be excessive in what you show but there’s also no need to shy away from the subject matter; after all, real people who are trapped in these situations don’t get to look away.
There are a number of sequences in this film which Young gets the absolute most out of by allowing them to develop naturally. Nothing that happens in this movie feels contrived or cheap which means that immersion is never broken and you’re able to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. The best example of this is the scene in which Vicki is actually kidnapped. In a worse film Vicki would come across as overly trusting or naïve and Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry) would come across as one-dimensional monsters, but that’s not the case in “Hounds of Love”. Vicki is suspicious from the moment she gets in her captor’s car and although the pair don’t come across as completely innocent they also don’t immediately seem evil. They feel like actual people, which might sound idiotic, but this isn’t always the case with antagonists in horror movies/psychological thrillers.
The kidnapping sequence is riveting from start to finish because although we know that the situation is going to go wrong fast the moment itself is still surprising. When Vicki realises what’s about to happen it’s truly devastating – she isn’t knocked out or too groggy to understand her fate, she’s fully aware of what’s going on and has no way of combating it. She’s helpless and it really is horrific to watch, much more so than any cliché horror monster could ever be. She screams and struggles and cries, but ultimately she’s tied to a bed by her wrists and no one even knows that she’s there. It’s one of the scariest scenes I’ve seen this year and captures exactly what this sort of situation would feel like; it doesn’t happen quickly and Vicki can’t escape – she’s trapped, bound, and at the mercy of a couple that begin having sex in front of her straight after tying her to a bed. That’s about as terrifying as it gets.
Of course none of the tension that this film elicits would be possible if it wasn’t for the superb acting of the three leads. Ashleigh Cummings is brilliant as Vicki, giving a truly believable performance by conveying the desperation that the character would be feeling. Stephen Curry is also great in his role despite the fact that he’s playing the most one-dimensional of the three main characters. He’s genuinely detestable and as frightening as he needs to be even though he’s diminutive in stature.
However, it’s Emma Booth who really steals the show by playing the surprisingly well-developed Evelyn. Evelyn is John’s partner and she does the bulk of the work in luring Vicki into a false sense of security, persuading her to enter both the car and the house in which she’s eventually imprisoned. Her role in the film is essentially to give Vicki an opportunity to escape, because although she’s complicit in both the kidnapping and the torture she doesn’t do it because she wants to. It’s clear throughout that Evelyn is trying to appease John and facilitate his needs so she never feels like she’s fully on-board with what’s happening, and the general animosity between the pair is only enhanced by Vicki’s presence in the house.
It isn’t exactly clear what makes Vicki special compared to the girls that Evelyn and John have abused in the past, which is a slight issue, but the tension between the couple still feels believable because there are outside factors putting pressure on their relationship. Throughout the film it’s referenced that Evelyn can’t have children in the house because of John’s behaviour; this causes friction between the couple because in the back of Evelyn’s mind there’s a choice to be made between John and her child, and it’s clear that although Evelyn loves her partner she’s having second thoughts about their relationship.
For the most part the writers did a good job of explaining character motivations in this way, but I must admit that there were a couple of moments when I was screaming at the screen internally, pleading with both the lead character and Evelyn to do something about their situations. I think that the main reason for this was that the writers wanted to make the final scene as compelling as possible and thus created a few nearly moments to keep the audience guessing, but whether or not the behaviour of either character was completely plausible is questionable.
I do think that the writers did enough to reference the psychological damage of being in captivity in order to alleviate frustration on the part of Vicki, and they also conveyed the fact that on some level Evelyn was stuck in a psychologically abusive relationship which made her subservient to John’s desires, but I think that in certain moments the characters should’ve reacted differently than they did. This isn’t a big issue for me at all because the character development was excellent on the whole, and my annoyance may just be a reflection of my general frustration when it comes to human behaviour rather than a failure to accurately depict said behaviour, but I was left irritated on a couple of occasions in the movie.
My biggest issue with “Hounds of Love” was definitely its ending. I think that this might be a surprise for some people because again there’s nothing obviously wrong with it – it isn’t terrible by any means – but it simply wasn’t as powerful as I expected it to be given how hooked I was for the majority of the film’s runtime. To me the ending felt a little too basic for what had happened up to that point, and personally I would’ve preferred a less predictable approach. The writers built towards a specific conclusion so it made sense that they committed to it, but at the same time I thought that a more inventive approach could’ve been taken to fit with the film’s overall quality.
Nonetheless, on the whole “Hounds of Love” was an assured and brutal piece of cinema with fantastic performances and confident direction. How you feel about it will ultimately depend on whether or not you can cope with a narrative which is utterly devoid of joy, but personally I thought this was a smart and poignant film.