The Women of Hounds of Love (Spoilers Ahead)

In Hounds of Love, Ben Young’s first feature-length film, a murderous couple in the city of Perth, Australia, stalks teenage girls to fulfil their sexual fantasies. The acts are orchestrated by John (Stephen Curry), a sexual predator who is cold, mean and conniving. His character is riveting because Young gives you just enough to wonder about what happened to this man to make him so diabolical, but the women surrounding him are equally compelling.

The film is set in 1987, when women were still coming off the gains from first wave feminism only to be kicked back by conservatism in the Reagan era. Traditional values were revisited and shunned by women who wanted to blaze trails and be the independent people their sisters before them fought for. I’m not sure if Young took any of this into account as he wrote the film, but with this era as a backdrop, there’s an interesting theme of traditional versus the modern woman running through the story.

Keeping second-wave feminism in mind, there are two distinct representations of women in the film. We have Vicki’s mother Maggie (Susie Porter) who is gaining her independence after leaving her husband, and Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) herself, a young adult pushing the boundaries and also looking for her place in the world without any parental interference. These two characters represent the burgeoning modern woman. Evelyn (Emma Booth), John’s wife and murderous cohort, is the more traditional figure. She does the cooking, cleaning and looks after her man and his conquests, doing her wifely duties in an extreme way.

Cummings as Vicki just before she is abducted.

Maggie is spreading her wings. Newly divorced, she is starting her new life and hopes to maintain her relationship with her daughter. Divorce in the 80’s was no longer taboo, in fact, it was becoming more common at that time due to changes with laws in North America and Australia. As a child of divorce, Vicki is processing her broken family home and experiencing her rebellious teen years. She deals with it in a typical way by defying her mother, seen as the person who destroyed their family because she’s left both Vicki and her father. Vicki attempts to be her own person despite the upheaval, and even has some power over her well-meaning boyfriend as he writes her school assignments for her. Both women are making efforts to create their own identity. Evelyn, on the other hand, finds comfort in her relationship. She is John’s caretaker and literal partner in crime; the nursemaid to their victims and his dutiful wife. There is no defiance here, only the urge to serve and be wanted. The actions of all three have consequences of varying degrees, but Evelyn’s is the most extreme case by living under the façade of a traditional role while she aids and abets the criminal activities of John.

Each woman will affect one another’s lives in the most unsettling of ways. When Vicky rebels against her mother and sneaks out to go to a party, she is lured into captivity by Evelyn and John. She is tough, however, and thinks on her feet, not succumbing completely to the fear of her abduction. As Evelyn cares for her captive, she forces information out of Vicki, and becomes jealous of her when she realized John’s interest in their captive. Evelyn wants to be as defiant and desirable as the teen, and when she fails to stand up to John, wants to break Vicki’s spirit to prove John loves her more.

We find out that Evelyn comes from a history of abuse that John rescued her from, and it’s the only thing she knows. She is angry, isolated and desperate, and needs something to care about since her children from a previous relationship were taken from her, so John gives her a dog. Her dog is a replacement for the lost children and her only tie to maternal feelings. Director Young said he used the dog to create sympathy for Evelyn, and it does indeed do that as it finds a violent end. But what we must remember is that she is part and parcel with John’s evil machinations. Even though she fears him and fears losing him, she knows right from wrong and still decides to participate. It’s this sobering fact that she played a part in the deaths of their victims, and that her washing the bloodied sheets and cleaning up the crime scene is just as heinous as the act itself. She is the woman that will do anything for love.

Evelyn and Maggie are complete opposites. Evelyn represents the perversion of domestic subservience. She does as John wants, takes care of the home, and yearns to be a mother where Maggie refuses this role. Maggie moves into her own house and wants to start fresh, but the resentment felt by her husband when their daughter goes missing is a fresh wound that he picks at, blaming her for their child’s disappearance and shaming her for her independence. Maggie shows inner strength in this situation as she refuses his patronizing help, determined to find her daughter; in fact, Maggie ignores the patronizing police officers as well and carries on with the search led by her instincts.

Where Maggie stands up to her husband, John taunts Evelyn about losing her children and she takes it. Her traditional mindset in this setting is a distortion of the abuses women fight against. Top it off with John’s monstrous and manipulative patriarchal power, and you have an extreme microcosm of what traditional norms do to women who reject them. Maggie’s punishment for leaving the nuclear home is her daughter’s rape and torture.  At one point Evelyn tells Vicki she should have listened to her mother and stayed home after Vicki tells her the truth about her dog’s role and that John is just using her. Evelyn also judges Maggie even though she doesn’t know her, sneering at the broken marriage; mocking Maggie’s independence perhaps because Evelyn too has tried to leave but failed on her own. She doesn’t want to focus on the wrongs she has done to the young women they have captured, instead emboldened by falling back into John’s favour, she taunts and blames Vicki for the crimes committed against her.  It’s as if Evelyn and John feel justified in their actions because these independent women didn’t toe the line and stick with traditional roles.

Evelyn and John lord over the girls like a twisted traditional family. They punish those coming up in the new world, dominating girls and putting them in their place. They don’t put them in a shed or a dark, dank basement, instead their victims are placed in a very regular bedroom, held down with chains. It shows their arrogance and how close evil lies in seemingly safe environments. We never get to know John’s backstory or internal process, but it seems that from the relationship he has with other men, namely his drug dealer, he is the low man on the totem pole and his displeasure manifests in obsessive behaviour and manipulating, dominating, or killing women.

*************************Spoiler Alert*******************************************************

There is only so much unrealistic traditional values can affect its environment and only so far it can go with the fantasy that everyone will accept their roles. The same goes for John and Evelyn. The murderous couple’s vision of marital bliss and conservative appearance is skewed by their fervour for sex, blood and torture and they aren’t as perfect as they see themselves. Even though John calls Evelyn his “queen” and he seems to love her in a way, neighbours complaining about their toxic relationship reveals that imperfection. Eventually there has to be a breaking point and Evelyn will reach it because of her insecurities surrounding her desirability. With this crack in the façade, it’s only a matter of time before things start to crumble.

Maggie finds the neighbourhood where Vicki is being held and frantically shouts her name in the street. In this moment, Evelyn relates to Maggie’s loss as a mother and must make a decision. Egged on by Vicki’s goading, she chooses to kill John because he has denied her of her children as well. In this moment, she finally stands up to him, and becomes independent like Maggie and Vicki. Her fate is sealed but she is now free of a domineering male figure; freeing herself, and the other women around her from the torture. She is by no means a heroine, but at the same time becomes a liberator of sorts for Vicki and herself.   Her last act is cold comfort for redemption, but at least closes the circle of evil she has perpetuated.

There is so much to say about male and female relationships, women’s power and accountability in such a brutal way in this film. I have only scratched the surface, but in a nutshell, Hounds of Love is not only a terrifying psychological thriller, but an in depth look at how women who step out of prescribed roles overcome criticism, sexism and brutality with inner strength.

*Read my review of the film on Cinema Axis here.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

The Tokoloshe: Mythology and Modern Trauma

With the South African film industry making new strides to create opportunities for local and foreign filmmakers, director Jerome Pikwane tackles the horror genre with his first feature film The Tokoloshe.

Busi (Petronella Tsuma) is a desperate young woman who finds work at a derelict hospital as a night-shift cleaner. She must deal with a predatory manager Mr. Ruatomin (Dawid Minaar), jaded coworkers and young abandoned patients in order to make money to bring her sister from their troubled rural home to Johannesburg. One night, Busi comes across Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), a little girl who is tormented by a nasty entity called The Tokoloshe, known to prey on children. Busi takes pity on Gracie, and even though she deals with the trauma of her own family issues and abuse, she sneaks Gracie out to live with her, unwittingly bringing the angry Tokoloshe into her home. Busi must protect Gracie, battle this entity and her own troubles to survive life’s harsh realties.

Busi (Petronella Tsuma) dreads another night at work.

The most popular definition of the Tokoloshe is a hairy, lustful, elf-like creature from Zulu folklore who wrecks havoc on people, especially women and children, causing mischief or death. Pikwane successfully melds this mythological figure with the difficult subject matter of sexual abuse and rape. In several interviews, Pikwane said he wanted to represent misogyny and the patriarchy through his film and the figure of the Tokoloshe was key in representing the patriarchy and all the oppressive men in Busi’s life. His handling of the abuse Busi and Gracie suffered was thoughtfully done with a few moments of brutality along with flashbacks and eerie atmosphere, surrounding Busi with shadowy settings to represent the hidden corners of her psyche.

I loved that there were two black female leads in a modern horror dealing with a real issue in South African society (and beyond). Tsuma and Nkosi had wonderful chemistry as lost souls looking for redemption and safety, and for a low-budget film, Pikwane incorporated an artistic and slightly gothic feel, comparable to The Babadook and Under the Shadow that also dealt with trauma and mental distress in similar fashions. The use of effects for some decent jump scares was also well done, with a few subtle CGI moments building up to big the creature reveal.

The Tokoloshe was screened at the 7th Toronto Black Film Festival (proudly co-presented by the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival), with one of the films producers, Cati Weinek in attendance. She talked about the rampant sexual abuse in South Africa and the need for Pikwane to address this through his film. She also mentioned the call for change with stereotypical roles for blacks in film, and she had great hopes for financing and creating more horror and films outside of the typical rom-com fare popular with South African audiences.

I think a lot of movie-goers will resonate with the characters and themes of The Tokoloshe. After having attended a talk given by Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and advocate for sexual abuse survivors, I have to commend Jerome Pikwane and his co-writer Richard Kunzman for being real allies in the struggle for accountability. They’ve not only produced an encouraging debut horror feature with an exciting new director, but an important tool for creating dialogue about trauma.