Vicki Maloney is randomly abducted from a suburban street by a disturbed couple. As she observes the dynamic between her captors she quickly realises she must drive a wedge between them if she is to survive.
July 5, 2017 France
Emma Booth as Evelyn White
Ashleigh Cummings as Vicki Maloney
Stephen Curry as John White
Susie Porter as Maggie
Perth, Australia. December 1987. A young girl named Vicki Maloney, (Ashleigh Cummings), is abducted from a suburban street one night. Her captors are John and Evelyn White, a married couple, played by Stephen Curry and Emma Booth. What follows is two hours of tense, twisted, psychological cat-and-mouse; the kind that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane look like a Christmas vacation. Turns out there are more horror films in Australia than The Babadook.
Hounds of Love, written and directed by Ben Young, comes to us with huge “indie cred” from the likes of South by Southwest, Tribeca, and the Venice Film Festival. Is the prestige warranted? Unequivocally. Sometimes it’s not about aliens, supernatural specters, or ghouls. The banality of horror can be just as arresting. Sometimes the most terrifying monster is the neighbor next door.
The pacing is tight, with a straightforward plot, similar to John McNaughton’s 1986 masterpiece Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The first act hinges on a specific, dramatic irony. Upset over her parents’ recent divorce, Vicki sneaks out of her mother’s house to go to a party after dark. Along the way, she hops into the car of a helpful young couple. This might seem like it could be a trite, Saturday morning special, except for the ghoulishness of the previous, pre-title scene. We’ve already seen the full depravity of Mr. and Mrs. White, though Vicki has not. That foreknowledge casts a dreadful inevitability to Vicki’s plight, hammering home the harsh reality of the situation.
The middle and ending shouldn’t be spoiled. Needless to say, it’s character driven. In order to make that work, well-drawn characterization and superb acting are required. Hounds of Love delivers both. All three of the actors have won major awards on the festival circuit, and it’s well deserved. The script blesses them with a plethora of reveals, reversals, manipulations, falls from grace, and even brief badassery. Too bad the story strains credibility right before fading to black, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Cummings as the kidnapped Vicki Maloney is the most physically demanding of the parts. Her character is beaten, chained, molested, tortured. Cummings emotionally commits to all these taxing moments. Dirty, tearful, and ultimately formidable. A comparison could be made to Brie Larson’s turn in Room (2015), or Liana Liberato in David Schwimmer’s 2010 cyber-predator film Trust. But both of those films were dramas. Horror comes from seeing what shouldn’t be seen. That includes the physical acts. In that sense, Cummings’ performance is more challenging.
Stephen Curry’s John White is the master manipulator of the couple. He oozes sleaziness right to the tips of his mustache. But in the quieter moments with his wife, Curry displays an eerie charm. As we learn their backstory, it becomes apparent that John is the dominant of the two, (as well as the real psychopath). Evelyn White’s crime is Stockholm syndrome, a firm belief that she can’t survive without her husband. John gets what John wants. And that brings me to my favorite performance in Hounds of Love: Emma Booth.
Emma Booth gives one of the most electrifying performances I’ve seen this year. Evelyn White is an incredibly difficult role for any actor to tackle. She goes from mania to empathy to collusion to defiance, and back again. But Booth is so crystal clear with Evelyn’s motives, the journey is believable. Small, emotional moments aren’t something that can be captured on the page. It takes a talent like Emma Booth to give it life. You feel sorry for Evelyn, even as you watch her do horrible things. Reminiscent of Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), sans the skin makeup.
The cinematography is a utilitarian balance of colors and shadows, creating a working class realism with a savage undercurrent, (an unusual use of slow motion is also unsettling). The eighties period is believably rendered, without pushing unwarranted nostalgia or devolving into tackiness. This is a gritty, tawdry world, filled with tawdry monsters. It will make you want to take a shower afterwards. The opening scene, involving a parked car and schoolgirls playing Netball, subverts the “male gaze” in the same way Peeping Tom did in the early sixties. Très disturbing.
Unfortunately, the last scene is a bit too saccharine and preposterous. It’s not that the final twist doesn’t make sense; it’s quite rewarding actually. But the handling is too heavy-handed. You should definitely check out Hounds of Love. Ultimately, the movie is about the power plays, both small and large, couples play against each other everyday. Behind closed doors, the most vile and heroic things can happen. For a genre that’s been around since the nineties, many of the nuances of the serial killer film haven’t been explored. All the more reason to give this a shot.
Hounds of Love is currently available in limited release and on VOD.