If there’s one genre more fraught with peril than true crime, it’s “true” crime – films and stories inspired by true events, without being bound by the facts as they happened. While this approach frees the filmmaker to mold events to tell their own story, it also opens them up to charges of exploitation and callousness. Such is the case with first-time director Ben Young, whose debut feature, Hounds of Love, is loosely based on the so-called “Moorhouse murders” of David and Catherine Birnie. While the story of the film differs enough that Young didn’t feel the need to include a “based on a true story” tag, the similarities were picked up by the couple’s sole surviving victim, who went public with her displeasure. All of which is a shame, because it distracts from a gripping, devastating work in its own right.
Hounds tells the story of Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), a sullen Australian teenager coping with her parents’ divorce. Grounded by her mother after some lackluster grades, Vicki sneaks out to a party, and soon takes a detour to buy some weed from friendly couple John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth). Unfortunately, by the time she gets in their car, we’ve already seen a Cliff’s Notes montage of John and Evelyn’s M.O.: a leering shot of lithe teenage tennis players, a friendly offer of a lift, a wrist chained to a bedpost, a pile of blood-spattered towels, a shallow grave in a pine barren. Inevitably, Vicki winds up in the couple’s clutches. As time wears on, however, she begins to spot cracks in her captors’ relationship, and begins working her surroundings to wrangle an escape.
Now then. Everything in the above synopsis is true, but I suspect it may give a false sense of the film’s story. Readers familiar with films in any capacity will likely assume that Hounds of Love is the story of a scrappy survivor’s ingenuity – and, to be sure, it’s impossible not to root for Vicki, cheering her breakthroughs and gasping at her hardships. Yet, in the film’s ballsiest move, Hounds is not Vicki’s story, not really. Instead, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that the central character is actually Evelyn. Booth’s portrayal of Evelyn is stunning, alternating between warmth, heartbreak, ferocity, and, ultimately, confusion. Booth’s face radiates such innocence in her early scenes – and even in later ones – that her acts of violence are all the more horrifying. Booth portrays Evelyn as a tragic figure – indefensible, but conflicted and broken enough that she’s hard not to sympathize with.
Evelyn is, after all, in the thrall of John, played by Curry with perfect dead-eyed slime. With his faux-macho mustache, weak chin, and well-coiffed pompadour, John could easily be played as a figure of fun. Sadly, as is too often the case in real life, John asserts for himself undue power through violence, sadism, and emotional manipulation. When Vicki nearly escapes, John hisses to Evelyn that an arrest would mean she would never see him again. When Evelyn’s dog poops in the house, John callously tells her that protective services will never grant them custody of her children (from a different father), conveniently ignoring literally every other aspect of their lifestyle. This is, of course, in addition to the harrowing physical abuse of both Evelyn and Vicki, as well as their untold number of previous wards.
And make no mistake, the violence is harrowing, to the extent that Hounds is a difficult movie to recommend. This is not a knock on its quality – indeed, it’s a testament to its power that each act of cruelty is intensely felt. The makeup effects are low-key and realistic, making them infinitely more upsetting than a million gore gags. And even if you hide your eyes behind your hands, much of the heavy lifting is done by the sound design; Cummings’ screams in particular are increasingly ratcheted up in the mix, eventually reaching a multi-tracked crescendo of horror. Hounds is a good film – maybe a great one – but it’s not one you put on for a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
For those with the emotional wherewithal to endure it, however, Hounds of Love is a rewardingly nuanced thriller. In her pre-screening introduction, BUFF co-director Nicole McControversy advised the audience to watch with particular scrutiny the relationships between the film’s female characters – that is to say, between Vicki and Evelyn, and between Vicki and her harrowed mother (Susie Porter). All three of these women find themselves at the mercy of men. Vicki, of course, is literally held prisoner, and is forced to survive through her own resourcefulness and her emotional connection with Evelyn. Evelyn, meanwhile, is forced to reconcile her instincts as a woman and mother with her codependent reliance on John. And Maggie, Vicki’s mother, has to rage against a police force and an ex-husband who shrug off her daughter’s disappearance as just another female whim. It isn’t until the film’s final moments that all three women achieve some manner of validation (if not necessarily a “happy” ending). It may not be the true story, but it’s hard to imagine any who see it forgetting it anytime soon.
Hounds of Love
dir. Ben Young
Part of the Boston Underground Film Festival