Hounds of Love (2017 Australia)
Ben Young’s Hounds of Love presents the unique proposition of a kidnapping victim driving a wedge between her tormenters rather than merely trying to escape. As played by Ashley Cummings, Vicki is quickly resigned to the hopelessness of her situation. She accepts a ride and then a drink from a middle-aged couple, lulled into the false security offered by the female half of the couple. She is then drugged and bound with chains and in a lesser film the torture-porn would have commenced.
Not so here.
Vicki’s captors are John and Evelyn, who we learn early on have been together since Evelyn was 13. Young quickly reveals through dialogue that Evelyn has been bounced around abused by men since hitting puberty, that she’s not allowed to see her two young children, and that she is something a bit beyond co-dependent with John. He does monstrous things but he doesn’t play an out-of-his-mind psychopath – he is OCD about things being in rows, and he has so fully manipulated and programmed Evelyn that their sex life is contingent on her being able to trick teenage girls to come over to their house of horrors to be drugged, chained and tortured.
Set in Perth during the spring of 1987, Young presents a slice of lower-middle class life in western Australia – the neighborhood the couple lives in (and Vicki’s mother lives in) is low-rent without being impoverished, the kind of neighborhood where people can have loud screaming fights and the police aren’t called, where the lawns are mowed but there’s bars on the windows and doors. This is contrasted with Vicki’s father, a surgeon whose life and style is ultra-modern (his desire to reconcile with his estranged wife seems a bit forced, fwiw).
I watched Days of Heaven just before watching Hounds of Love, and the similarities between Evelyn and Abby are striking, fully-developed portraits of two women who have been on the low end of the economic spectrum their entire lives now doing things they may not have wanted to do at first in order to get ahead. Evelyn’s paranoia about John’s desire for Vicki isn’t un-founded; a scene where he locks himself in the bathroom with the nubile teen while Evelyn waits on the outside is perversely heart-breaking, as she begins to realize that this kidnapping is different from the other ones.
This is Young’s first feature film, and it’s excellent. He chose wisely not to wade into the exploitation route of torture-porn, and his makeup artists do a good enough job on Vicki that we get the point without seeing the graphic sex and torture going on in the bedroom. She spends most of the film in a shirt and panties, yet the evolution of her dried blood, bruising, cuts and scarring tell the story.
The set design is particularly notable as most of the action takes place in a bedroom that is on the other side of an open hall from the kitchen, so Vicki doesn’t even need to hear much of what is going on between John and Evelyn to see how she might have a chance. Hitchcock was the master of this method, and in suspense it is often under-utilized.
The success or failure of the film’s effectiveness rests on the dynamic between Evelyn and Vicki, and both actresses excel, though it’s Evelyn who is the breakout of the film. The film is grisly without being too much so, a great deal implied (think Haneke’s Funny Games) but disturbing nonetheless.
It’s one of the best films of 2017 and Ben Young is a directing talent whose evolution I look forward to seeing.