*Mild Spoilers for Hounds of Love*
Despite being a seasoned horror fan, there are a few subjects really scare me. Serial killer movies, for instance, make me profoundly uncomfortable and anxious. Such stories lack the supernatural and fantastical elements of other horror movies, which I often use to create a degree of psychological distance between myself and fear. But serial killers are real. They target real people. The only psychological distance I can use to insulate myself from this fear is the fact that a serial killer has not come after me thus far.
Despite being a tough movie to get through, I thought Hounds of Love was amazing. I think it’s one of the best horror films of the year for both filmmaking technique as well as its exploration of female identity in a male-dominated context. Hounds of Love finds unexpected resonance not because of its male serial killer, but because of his female accomplice.
Female accomplices of notorious male serial killers and serial rapists are distressingly common. Martha Beck, Karla Homolka, Catherine Birnie, Janice Hooker, Nancy Garrido all assisted their men in violent crimes. More than the grisly details, it’s difficult to understand why these women helped, appearing to act against their interests and betray their gender. Some experts say that many female accomplices were abused and coerced into assistance. Others believe that some of these women were as evil as their partners. Others say that it might be a bit of both and there is no way to draw a clear line between what they did out of love versus fear.
That’s why it took me a while to watch 2017 Australian horror film Hounds of Love and why I couldn’t write about it right away. This film was a challenge. It dragged me out of my comfort zone and forced me to confront one of many sordid, terrible, based-on-a-true-story tales.
I was prepared for a rough movie, but I wasn’t prepared for the film’s message.
Hounds of Love is loosely based on the crimes of David John Birnie and Catherine Margaret Birnie of “Moorhouse Murders” infamy. In 1986, the Birnies raped and murdered four young women and attempted to murder a fifth. The film follows John and Evelyn White, husband and wife, who live in a rundown house in a drab suburb of Perth, Australia. John is manipulative and abusive towards Evelyn, but together they get a real thrill out of kidnapping, torturing, and murdering unsuspecting young women.
Evelyn, in particular, has a real knack for luring girls to satisfy John’s urges. She’s very good at putting victims at ease, sweetly offering rides and marijuana. She seems cool, friendly, maybe a little needy, but harmless. She’s there to help john wrestle girls into the dirty bedroom that serves as a prison. She holds down the John binds them to the bed. Evelyn is the only one who “cares” for the girls and cleans up after them. She does all the housekeeping, shopping, and stealing to help John pay his drug debts. She dreams of regaining custody of her child. And while she is terrified of John, Evelyn relishes the affection and status John gives her for playing her part.
John and Evelyn find their next victim in Vicki Maloney, an intelligent and headstrong young woman. Vicki’s world has been turned upside down by her parents’ divorce, initiated by her mother, Maggie. Vicki resents her mother for leaving her comfortable life with her doctor husband to strike out and build her own life. So Vicki rebels, sneaks out to a party against her mother’s wishes, ends up lost, and accepts a ride from John and Evelyn. Things go bad quickly, and Vicki finds herself captive. At the mercy of the couple, Vicki deduces that her only chance of survival is to exploit Evelyn’s insecurities and exacerbate the cracks in their relationship.
Hounds of Love is an excellent film. The cast is perfect, though Emma Booth’s heartbreaking and disturbing turn as Evelyn deserves special recognition. The writing is tight, well-paced, and respectful towards its subject matter, knowing when to look away and when to confront the audience. The cinematography is pensive and cold, portraying suburban life as banal and menacing. Ben Young’s direction is stunningly good, balancing moments of horror and anguish and tenderness and rage. He skillfully calculates mounting tension and tragic resolutions, which makes Hounds of Love one of the more suspenseful horror films I’ve seen in a while.
The personal dynamics are the real star. It’s rare to watch a horror film about serial murder that doesn’t focus on the (usually male) serial killer. In Hounds of Love, John looms large through the physical and psychological danger he presents, but narratively speaking, he’s on the periphery. The Hounds of Love is about how he threatens and cajoles Evelyn. He is Evelyn’s motivation, her perverse incentive structure. Even though he regularly abuses her, she is eager to please him. He gives her food, shelter, and a sense of importance. The more malicious Evelyn is towards Vicki, the more adoration he lavishes upon her.
Watching the movie, I thought that John might think he loves Evelyn, but there can be no love in a situation like this, where he alternates between bullying and flattering her. I wondered if she really loved him as well, because
Evelyn is damaged. She is the product of a lifetime of pain. The film drops hints that Evelyn has been kicked around all her life. The one really good thing she ever had in life—her children—have been taken from her, and it’s suggested that John is responsible. John abuses her. He preys on her insecurities. He terrorizes her. And he can talk her into almost anything.
How did this happen? How did her worldview become so distorted that killing women is an acceptable price to pay for his “love”?
Hounds of Love makes clear that Evelyn gets a lot out of participating. What is rape and murder to a desperate woman who has been primed to accept abuse and fucked up dynamics? Evelyn helps John because he gives her the opportunity to have everything life has denied her—motherhood, importance, adoration, and most importantly, control.
As a result, she accepts the status John gives her. Her rule is limited to the confines of their rundown suburban home. It necessitates rape and murder. It demands that she cleans up the mess and swallows her anger when John breaks the rule. But by God, at least those girls are far beneath her in the hierarchy. And that makes Evelyn feel special.
I couldn’t help but see Hounds of Love as a remarkable examination of how women cling to power and control within a patriarchal system. Among the film’s themes of female identity, abusive relationships, and personal sovereignty is a disturbing dissection of gender roles. The film presents Vicki with Evelyn and Maggie, two women who wrestle against the powerful men in their lives. For example, Maggie’s ex-husband is not a violent serial killer, but he is passive aggressive and manipulative, all but explicitly blaming Vicki’s disappearance on the divorce and Maggie’s refusal to return to her marriage. Many of his tactics mirror John’s emotional abuse.
Evelyn and Maggie struggle to build their identities. One lies to herself about the nature of her actions, which she hopes absolves her of responsibility for the murders. The other has forsaken material comfort and social approval to strike out on her own. One tries to fit into the system that ensnares her; she faces horrible treatment while enjoying distinct benefits. The other rejects the system as much as a woman could in the 1980s; she finds independence but is judged and attacked for it.
The bright hope of this film is, of course, Vicki. Her strength carries her through unspeakable horror and helps her undermine John and Evelyn’s fantasy world. The film’s nerve-shredding climax is a testament to Vicki’s resolve to reject the power dynamic thrust upon her. It is also a lesson that, despite Evelyn’s change of heart, she will never be able to wash the blood from her hands. She made her choices.
With the #metoo movement, the unmasking of scores of powerful men as predators, and hearing women defend those men and cast aside the victims, Hounds of Love forced me to confront a new kind of horror. This is real-life—muted, slow-moving, non-violent but just as destructive. I’m not saying that defending an abusive asshole or accused rapist is the same as assisting a serial killer, but many of the justifications sound awfully similar—the excuses, the victim-blaming, the self-blaming, the deflections, the weak justifications, and the defensive anger when those justifications are questioned. Cognitive dissonance abounds.
Hounds of Love teaches its audience that the real horror is not just a predator, but those who enable and support them. For all the talk about accountability, these crimes do not occur in a vacuum. They occur within a system that lets predators exploit the weaknesses and motivations in other, the same people who perform a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that a predator can offer them a pretty good deal.
That lesson keeps me up at night.