The Dog Days of Summer: “Hounds of Love” (2016)

It’s been an unusually mild summer in Toronto so far, but the heat is on the rise. With it comes the familiar feeling of close, sweaty discomfort, a slew of heat waves and thunderstorms, and the madness of blinding sunshine and feverish tempers. For some, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to seek out a cool, dark place in which to catch up on horror movies. You know, so you can be uncomfortable and disturbed in another, more preferable manner.

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If you slept on Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (2016), for example, it’s as good a time as any to be absorbed by its thought-provoking themes (if you can manage to sit through its brutal displays, of course). I, for one, was struck by its examination of the way in which violence brings its female characters together. The film opens with mesmerizing, slow-motion interludes of typical summer imagery: girls in school uniforms playing ball in a court; two little kids in bathing suits chasing jittering sprays of water from a sprinkler; a woman hauling two paper bags of groceries into the house. This initial framing hones in on the female form from the uneasy point of view of the film’s villainous odd couple, John and Evelyn White. As their car creeps along quiet streets, they scope out possible victims to satiate their sordid tastes, eventually setting their sights on and kidnapping Vicky, a resourceful, rebellious teenager whom they encounter sneaking off to a party late one night.

A horrifying thriller based on a true crime that took place in Perth, Australia, in the late 1980s, the film employs violence as a means to establish a mirroring effect between its female characters, Evelyn and Vicky, ultimately connecting them through trauma. There is so much at play in this thematic union: a reflection on freedom and order; the dichotomy of control and rebellion; and of seizing one’s independence.

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The concern of freedom is ingrained in the film, right down to its visual cues. Most notably, there is a recurring emphasis on windows as exit points, as symbols of escape or opportunity and, at times, the lack thereof. By and large, these windows are compared between two specific locales: those at the White’s house, and those found at the new house in which Vicky and her mother live. Early on, the camera lingers on a foreboding, boarded-up window at the back of the White’s house, its opening blocked by a plank of plywood that closes off the terror that takes place in the bedroom on the other side. This contrasts with the expansive windows that expose the interior of Vicky’s mother’s house, also seen from the backyard. Following an argument between mother and daughter, one long shot divides attention between Vicky’s mother, seen in the living room on the left, and Vicky in her bedroom on the right, as she slides open its large windows to slip out for some forbidden, late-night fun. The framing of the bathroom window at the White’s house, however, takes precedence as it arguably plays a more active role in the film. This window pane is small, chained to the sill, and guarded by Evelyn White’s dog. While the first of Vicky’s two escape attempts is foiled, Vicky uses the open window to mislead her frantic captors, and ultimately as a potential portal to her freedom.

The theme of freedom carries on further across the storylines of both Evelyn and Vicky, but also in the arc of the latter’s estranged mother. Before the physical trauma of the main narrative begins, Maggie settles into a new home, seeking freedom from an unsatisfactory family life by rebuilding her own. As she unpacks and decorates the open space, she struggles to make amends with her unruly daughter. When Vicky is captured, she fights for her freedom from two twisted individuals, struggling against their constant surveillance and the chains locking her to the bedpost in their spare bedroom. Her captor, Evelyn, also struggles to find a sense of independence, to break free from the bonds of a history of wrong romantic attachments represented by her current abusive and manipulative husband.

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There are even some interesting connections drawn between Evelyn and Maggie, who are compared through their respective roles as mothers. Neither woman has a conventional, close relationship with their children, and each one has to endure extended periods of separation from them: Maggie only sees Vicky for two nights a week, and Evelyn can barely get the chance to give a Christmas present to her young child (who is withheld from her by her ex). But women both seek to have a greater closeness with their offspring, and experience a turning point in relation to them. When Vicky is forced by her captors to scribe a letter to her mother with false assurances about her absence and well-being, Maggie’s intuition that her daughter’s note is laced with an underlying message triggers her to take the search for her missing daughter into her own hands.

Evelyn’s turning point comes later in the film, during (*warning*) a brutal sequence in which her husband, John, beats her dog to death in a fit of rage. But this pet is especially significant: while Vicky is trapped in their house, she notices a few children’s toys tucked away, and quickly surmises that this pet is, in effect, a stand-in for Evelyn’s child. This connection is also visually reinforced by the only two items stuck to the White’s fridge: a photo of Evelyn with a baby, and a photo of Evelyn with the dog. Vicky shares her observations with Evelyn, to manipulate her kidnapper and provoke her sympathy. On hearing Vicky’s mother screaming her daughter’s name as she searches the neighbourhood from house to house, something stirs in Evelyn, moving her to act against John, and enabling Vicky to claim her freedom. Both Maggie and Evelyn’s instincts are activated by a threat to their offspring, actual or symbolic.

The fixation on order and control is also very prominent. Evelyn’s inability to mother her own child motivates her to scramble for whatever semblance of control she is afforded by John. Desperate for love and so abiding his orders, she helps to lure the girls they approach under the guise of being a happy, fun-loving couple. Like their victims, she is also bound by the locks on entrances and entry points at the White household, which not only prevent the escape of their victims, but effectively turn Evelyn into a prisoner as well. As with Vicky, chains and locks are her bonds. Evelyn exercises her own sense of control in smaller ways, managing Vicky while John is out, and displaying cues of orderliness even in the details: at breakfast, she fusses over John’s toast slices, ensuring that they’re lined up perfectly, with his egg cup to the left of his plate; placing the empty beer bottles side by side along the floor in front of the stove; her ritual of hanging laundry in the backyard; cigarette butts spaced out in equal measure in the ashtray; even the household furniture which is sparse seems strategic, purposeful. Everything has its place, even Evelyn, but only until a point.

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When resisting their set place in the world, both Evelyn and Vicky sustain some type of marking, evidence of the control exercised against them, of their freedom being restrained, and of the strength of their efforts to endure or break free from that pain. These markings function both as reminders earned in cruel circumstances: the former sustains beatings while trying to rebel against her violent husband, while the latter is brutalized by the couple acting together, her skin patterned with ligature marks from rope and chain bonds around her wrists and ankles, the corners of her mouth angry and red from the chafing gag, her kneecaps raw and inflamed. After a contemplative bath, Evelyn communes with her body, ruminating on the c-section scar and the stretch marks on her abdomen, reminders of a child that has been taken away from her, ripped from her life. Further, still, are the emotional scars that abound for these women.

Over the course of their resistance, all that was routine, ritual, or orderly is eventually dispensed with, replaced by graphic displays of rebellion. Vicky’s agitated relationship with her mother causes her to act out by submitting false school assignments or sneaking out against her mother’s orders. At times, Evelyn channels her anger and jealousy into confrontations with John. Bodily fluids are intrinsically connected with catalytic moments of rebellion as well. When John attempts to assault the bed-bound Vicky during his wife’s absence, Vicky forces her bowels to expel; her body becomes her only available tool to rebel against him, and it stokes the growing tension between the Whites. Similarly, in the instances where Evelyn’s dog leaves little crap tokens in the house, John’s rage explodes coinciding shortly with the peak of Evelyn’s resistance, in which she finally and repeatedly plunges a knife into John’s bloody torso, challenging his stunned look with a defiant look of her own. It is this moment that truly captures the film’s title: beat a loyal, loving creature down and eventually it’s bound to snap and turn against you.

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In a twisted way, these women are indeed unified by their individual experiences of violence and trauma. Evelyn and Maggie are unknowingly aligned in their role as mothers and connected by Vicky’s torture and assault, while, over the course of the entrapment, Vicky and Evelyn form a crude version of a surrogate mother-daughter relationship, with Vicky appealing to Evelyn’s motherly instincts. And, when Vicky and her mother are reunited once more, their strained relationship is effectively salvaged by violence. Ultimately, the film reflects on the interplay of violence and love: where violence can weaken or destroy love, in some extreme ways It can also motivate to repair damaged bonds with family and with one’s self.

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