My movie pick for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Hounds of Love ★★★★★
At the start of this thriller, we’re introduced to a quiet, picturesque suburb in Perth, Australia where women are disappearing. It’s 1987 in this chilling, unforgettable film where killing couple John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth) are abducting young female victims. The characters are based on real-life husband and wife murderers David and Catherine Birnie who killed four women in the 1980s in their home in Perth. The press dubbed the crimes the Moorhouse murders after the Birnie’s address.
Much to its credit, the movie shows very little gore. Most of the violence goes on your head—much like in Psycho‘s shower scene where you hear the horrifying music, spot the knife, see a flash of Janet Leigh’s terrified scream. The rest comes from your own mind, filling in grotesque images of what must be happening. Hounds of Love uses slow motion snippets to brilliantly introduce us to the quaint little town. A carefully chosen and well-timed soundtrack merges with the slow-mo to create goose-bumpy fear. This is a shocking debut for writer-director Ben Young. It has the self-control and masterful storytelling you’d expect from a seasoned filmmaker.
Teenager Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings), 17, picks the wrong night to rebel against her mother. Emotionally distraught by her parent’s recent uncoupling, Vicki sneaks out to go to a party. She blames her mother Maggie (Susie Porter), an artistic free spirit, for blowing up their family unit. Vicki’s dad Trevor (Damian de Monemas) is a successful surgeon but Maggie felt smothered by him and chose a more bohemian lifestyle. Vicki is having a hard time adjusting despite her loving and supportive boyfriend (Harrison Gilbertson). She’s furious with her mom but pampered with gifts by her Dad, including an adorable puppy.
It’s easy to identify with Vicki in spite of, or because of, her broody moodiness as a teen. We watch helplessly as the serial killers lure Vicki into their car by offering to smoke a joint with her and bring her to a fun party. They look so normal and friendly. It’s not the tired device in a million B-movies where the soon-to-be imperiled character wonders who might be in a scary, dark dungeon of a basement and stupidly goes in alone to investigate. Ben Young’s writing is smart and believable. At Vicki’s age, I could’ve been easily swayed to hang with these peeps.
The acting is as superb as the script, cinematography (Michael McDermott), and soundtrack (Moody Blues, Cat Stevens, and a haunting score by Australian composer Dan Luscombe). It all fits together seamlessly to scare the bejeezus out of you. It also offers layered characters. Evelyn is a deeply disturbed woman who should’ve attended 12-step codependency meetings instead of worshipping John as her higher power. It’s reminiscent of girls like Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins who offered Charles Manson godlike worship and total submission.
Bound and gagged and secured to a bed in the White’s home, Vicki becomes their object to play with and taunt. Problems arise when John takes a special interest in this prisoner. Evelyn feels threatened by John’s obsessive fascination with their beautiful — and younger — captive. Vicki sees the manipulative hold John has on Evelyn and uses that to her advantage by appealing to the tiny, hidden piece of Evelyn that knows that John uses her. The females in the film are an intriguing contrast: weak, pathetic Evelyn versus strong, self-reliant, resourceful Vicki and her Mom.
After viewing multitudinous movies at Tribeca Film Festival, I cannot get this one out of my head, nor do I want to. It is that good.
Best Feature: Hounds of Love, The Overlook Film Festival
Best Actress: Ashleigh Cummings, Fedeora Award, Venice Film Festival
Best Actress: Emma Booth, Brussels International Film Festival
Best Director: Ben Young, Brussels International Film FestivalVideo © Dorri Olds
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE STARS
Dorri Olds: Stephen, you were a really scary sociopath. And you’re a comedian, right?
Stephen Curry: Yeah. [Laughs]
DO: Are you one of those people that could get deep into character and then snap out of character on breaks?
Ashleigh Cummings and Emma Booth [in unison]: Yes!
Stephen: Yeah, well that’s the thing, that’s what I usually do but it was a lot harder on this because of how involved we became and how intrinsically we were working together to make this piece. To see the performances that were coming out of Ashleigh and Emma, it was increasingly harder to pull ourselves away. We were in that reality and the realization, and acceptance, that this stuff happens to real people is a really, really horrible thought. That was one of the reasons we had to tell this story. And we wanted to do it in as respectful a manner as possible. And that meant committing 100 percent to it.
Ashleigh: Stephen was amazing. He’d bring us out of it at lunchtime by playing his ukulele.
Emma: He was amazing! He used to write improvised songs for us with a ukulele, which we have on tape.
Ashleigh: We do.
Stephen: You’ve got that on tape?
Emma: Yeah, I do. Stephen is actually unbelievably hilarious and brilliant. Just having him there with that energy and humor, was great.
Ashleigh: Yeah, it was dark. It was almost suffocating the amount of grief and the location was a very claustrophobic place to work.
Emma: Because that’s all we could afford. [Laughs] And we were going through this crazy heatwave in Australia.
Stephen: Yeah, we were confined to this small space and it was about 110 degrees—crazy hot. And the material itself was so claustrophobic as well.
Emma: We needed a location like that. It was perfect for it. But it was 30 crew members in there as well.
DO: Did you work on back stories for your characters? Emma, can you tell me how you became so demented?
Emma: [Laughs] I don’t know, do you got three hours? I don’t even know where to start. I think it started from a very young age. And this love story that started between John and Evelyn’s dependency on each other from 13 years of age.
Stephen: Yeah, that’s what it is. I think he was a slightly older kid. He might have been 17 or 18 and he found this Evelyn, this metaphor of a bird with a broken wing, that he took under his wing and from that moment on provided Evelyn with the supposed love that she needed. But it was all only an affectation because he’s a sociopath.
DO: When did Evelyn have her two kids taken away to go live with their father?
Emma: She basically just left them for John. He kept manipulating her saying, “We’ll get the kids soon.” Although Evelyn and John met at thirteen, it was a kind of on and off relationship. So, Evelyn is just holding onto the hope that she’s gonna get the kids back. She’s trying to just appease John the whole time. He’s so obsessed, and she’s so reliant on John that she’d do anything for him. She gave up everything. What she ended up with was a devastating existence.
DO: Ashleigh, your character’s mother had an incredible instinct where she could just feel you. Then there was that scene—a great nod to Silence of the Lambs.
Stephen: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
DO: Did Ben Young do that as dark humor?
Stephen: I don’t know if it was necessarily dark humor but Ben has said many times that film is one of his favorites and he wanted to pay homage to it. But we don’t want to give too much away!
DO: Ashleigh, in one scene your character’s boyfriend doesn’t walk towards you. It was while you’re hugging your mom. Did he do that out of respect, to give your characters a private moment, or was he just too freaked out?
Ashleigh: A little bit of both. I’m not sure if you see it, but when we were shooting, the dad collapses and the boyfriend stays to comfort him. But also, I think it was out of respect.
DO: A boyfriend can have this weird macho feeling that he should have protected his girlfriend. Was it partly that?
Ashleigh: Maybe. That’s a question for Harrison. He’s a brilliant actor. He’s a very thoughtful and sensitive person and might have built all that into it.
DO: Stephen, was there a back story for John’s parents—to show how you become such an evil, no empathy kind of guy?
Stephen: I did a lot of study on sociopaths. Ben and I agreed that John received their love but any kind of “love” that he had received was an affectation. That’s all he ever knew. So, that fed his desire for power and control and a need to assume a hierarchy because he never received it as a child.
DO: I imagined John’s upbringing like Charles Manson’s, whose mother had him when she was a 16-year-old prostitute. Or like serial killer Henry Lee Lucas; his prostitute mother had sex with her “johns” in front of Lucas. Was John’s story similar, which might help explain why he hated women so much?
tephen: Certainly, John felt like he never had control over his life. He saw anything that happened to him as a slight. He thought life was unfair and that no child should have to go through what he did. Thereby, even his sense of order, his need for control, emotionally and physically, and his OCD, made him need everything to be “right.” He even orchestrated it so Evelyn was doing the scouting and kidnapping for him. She is creating this order that he is orchestrating. He sees it as “allowing” Evelyn to be his slave.
DO: Emma, what was it like for you when you got off work and went back to your life?
Emma: Stephen would snap Ashleigh and me out of that stuff. There’s so much love between us that we’d just hug goodbye afterwards. There was an exhaustion, though, from bringing up that much emotional stuff all day. I’d go home and just stare at the wall and my husband would be like, “Hello? Are you there?” I’d be like, “Darling, please don’t talk to me.” I’d just sit there so tired but so wired.
Ashleigh: Yes, it tired and wired simultaneously.
Emma: It was bizarre but I wasn’t tortured.
Ashleigh: I was.
DO: I would’ve been.
Emma: What does that say about me? [Laughs]
Ashleigh: For me it was because I was playing the victim. Just knowing that there were other girls who had been in that situation. We were telling this story and I could feel them telling theirs, and fighting for their rights. I don’t know how to stop that kind of pain and torture. That was awful and I had to very consciously consider the notion of creation in the face of such devastation. That was the only thing that kind of got me through. I’d get very apocalyptic with my thoughts, quickly. I was like, “Look at all this pain in the world,” and it just expanded to a bigger picture thing.
DO: Wow, great answer. Now, about the title, “Hounds of Love,” was that because Emma was in love even though it was a very sick love? Was she a hound of love? Or was it because John was feeding the victims to their hound? Or was it a reference to the beginning of the film, when Ashleigh is struggling with her parent’s divorce and her father gives her a puppy as a way to express love?
Emma: It’s from the Kate Bush song.
Ashleigh: It’s about predators and prey, and the reference of the dog.
Stephen: And it’s a reference of the hound bought as a substitute for Evelyn’s children.
DO: Right, and those lyrics could be about Vicki: running in the night…afraid of what might be. Hiding in the dark, in the street. Totally interesting analyzing that song, and the psychology in the movie. I could talk to you guys all day long about this movie. It was my favorite at Tribeca Film Festival this year.
Emma: We love that.
DO: So many other would’ve overacted and none of you did. It could’ve really been ruined by that.
Emma: We were so careful.
Ashleigh: And Ben was amazing in orchestrating that and we kept talking about it.
Emma: For Stephen’s character, I don’t think there could be a more perfect person to play it. There’s so much power in silence. There were times when he actually took that to extremes. He just did nothing and it was terrifying.
Stephen: I’d forgotten a lot of that stuff. [Laughs]
Ashleigh: It’s so hard to do nothing.
Emma: It is! But that’s everything and it takes balls. You’re like, “Am I doing enough? Giving enough?”
Stephen: Clearly you gave it your all. Superb performances. What’s it been like to get all these awards and all this attention?
Stephen: Kind of surreal.
Hounds of Lovesong lyrics by Kate Bush© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
It’s in the trees
When I was a child
Running in the night
Afraid of what might be
Hiding in the dark
Hiding in the street
And of what was following me
Now hounds of love are hunting
I’ve always been a coward
And I don’t know what’s good for me
Here I go
It’s coming for me through the trees
Help me someone
Help me please
Take my shoes off
And throw them in the lake
And I’ll be
Two steps on the waterI found a fox
Caught by dogsHe let me take him in my hands
His little heartIt beats so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away
From nothing real
I just can’t deal with this
But I’m still afraid to be thereAmong your hounds of love
And feel your arms surround me
I’ve always been a coward
And never know what’s good for me
Oh here I go
Don’t let me go
Hold me downIt’s coming for me through the trees
Help me darling
Help me please
Take my shoes off
And throw them in the lake
And I’ll be
Two steps on the water
I don’t know what’s good for me
I don’t know what’s good for meI need your love love love love love yeah
Your loveTake your shoes off
And throw them in the lake
Do you know what I really need? Do you know what I really need? I need love love love love love yeah