By Bears Fonte
As a reviewer, sometimes you watch films in a theater with an audience, but spoiler, sometimes you watch them as a link on your home computer. Rarely is this a good way to watch a film. Sure, you try to block that out when evaluating it, but the experience is always different. That being said, Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE is maybe the first film I ever was glad I watched sitting at my desk in the comfort of my own home, sunlight shining through the window next to me. Following sexual predator couple John and Evelyn who pick up young girls, bring them back to their house, and rape, torture and kill them, HOUNDS OF LOVE is a vicious descent into darkness without a guide. Anchored by an unflinching performance by Ashleigh Cummings as Vicki, the latest victim in the couple’s serial murder rampage, Young’s film assaults the audience with sheer helplessness as Vicki struggles to survive one day to next, smartly playing the couple off each other and searching for a means of escape.
Despite the director’s protests, the film is clearly inspired by the Moorhouse Murders in Perth, Australia in the mid-eighties, in which David and Catherine Birnie abducted and killed four women, and were caught during the abduction of a fifth. While I understand the need to distance the work from the real events, and actors from the real people (all of which are still alive), the details of place and time give HOUNDS OF LOVE an authenticity that makes it even more frightening. Vicki, despite the broken home she sneaks out of before her abduction, is not a typical victim. She never gives in to the situation, constantly searching for a means to improve her circumstance. And if John (Stephen Curry) falls into predictable serial-killer/sexual predator behavior, Evelyn (Emma Booth) offers one of the most complicated portrayals of victim/aggressor ever caught on film. Desperately in love with her butcher of a husband, and terribly jealous of any other woman he might take an interest, she takes part in these abductions to give him an outlet she still feels somewhat in control of. As Vicki needles Evelyn about her relationship, she forces her to question her own choices for first time and pull the couple apart.
It is not an easy watch by any means. It is an unapologetic portrait of bedroom terrorism, and I was glad I was at home and could watch a you tube video of bunnies in cups right afterwards to cleanse my pallet. But the performances in this film stay with you long after viewing. Most of the torture is off screen, but the psychological attacks stab just as deep. Cummings delivers a powerhouse performance despite spending most of the film strapped to a bed. It is a rare young actress who seems at once innocent and world-weary, qualities that give her Vicki an edge that we can only assume previous victims lacked.
I had a chance to sit down with Ashleigh Cummings at SXSW last March to discuss HOUNDS OF LOVE and her role.
Bears: What drew you to this film? It had to be a difficult decision knowing what was going to be asked of you.
Ashleigh Cummings: I was really intrigued by the perspective that was told through Evelyn’s eyes. Exploring the psychological journey. That’s something you don’t often see, insight into her hurts as well as kind of her predatorial ways. Then I met with the director because I wanted to suss out what his vision was, how he was going to construct this story. I knew as soon as I met him I knew I had to be a part of the project.
Bears: I assume you must have talked about how he was going to portray the violence, which is often, thankfully, understated.
Cummings: One of the first things he said that he wanted to hire and cast good humans. Then he was going to look at their artistic merits. That sold me immediately. I think the whole world should run that way. He said he wasn’t interested in displaying the horror. It wasn’t going to be grotesquely violent. His interest was in the psychological perspective. So much of it was going to be implied. That really took me because horror isn’t generally my genre. I haven’t watched a lot because I grew up in Middle East and struggled with violence. The way he did it was quite masterful and very tasteful. I was quite blown away. I saw it for the first time yesterday and I was really blown away.
Bears: That was the first time you saw it? With a giant group of people?
Cummings: That was the first time I saw it! Yeah. I usually go into a black hole and kind of disappear. I don’t usually do this because I don’t want to talk to people or anything. I am quite critical of my own work. I was really taken by the artistry and my own self-critic fell to the side because I was so entranced. I knew Ben was incredible, and I knew Emma and Steve were phenomenal in their performances. But I didn’t realize quite how so until I saw the film. I was really blown away.
Bears: So what did you think it was about you specifically that convinced Ben you were the one? How did you win the role?
Cummings: I reckon I’ve got a pretty solid scream. It can go on for a long time without me losing my voice. At the audition, I did my first scream and they went, “SHHHH!” We were in a public building and they were like, “Hey, we’re going to that take one more time, but could you maybe tone down the screaming?” I really think that’s why I got the role. One of my skill sets.
Bears: How do you prepare for something like this as a role? What did you do before filming actually started?
Cummings: Well, I was actually cast only a week before we actually started filming. In that week, I was headlong into true stories surrounding events like these. You know, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch. People who had been held captive. More interested in those initial few days of the kidnapping, because our story spans those first few days. And also watching other, sort of artistic films like – THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED was one that Ben gave me. I watched ROOM with Brie Larson. Though that is quite different because that is a long-term captivity. But it was about getting inside the minds of these victims. I was very specific with how I structured her journey, because it very easily could have turned into just me crying and screaming, being chained to a bed. That would have been quite monotonous and boring. During that period of time, in those acute stages of the kidnapping, it would be high stakes all the time. We had to carve the—
Bears: It was almost like tactics.
Cummings: Yeah, and Vicky definitely uses those to manipulate Evelyn and get what she wants.
Bears: There was a very famous set of husband and wife serial killers in Perth in the 80s. There was a girl Kate Moir who escaped. Did you read any interviews of hers?
Cummings: Our film wasn’t based on any actual events. It was inspired by true events, but all the characters are fictional and everything. I think Ben read like nine different stories – it might have been more, I’m not sure. I knew about those murders because they were quite high profile in Australia. I kind of did a little bit of looking around, but she has remained quite private and I want to respect that. You look for the people who are willing to share their stories. People deal with things differently. Her privacy is something I would love to respect. I went to the people who were openly talking about it.
Bears: On the day of shooting, it’s like, “okay, today, you’re going to be chained to a bed.” Every day you come in with that. How do you prepare for that in your head? Especially because, I’m assuming, you didn’t shoot in order. But in this film, more than ever, I think you could shoot a little in order.
Cummings: Yeah, we could shoot a little bit of the in-house stuff fairly chronologically, which was amazing. As much as I carved out this emotional journey of basically following the stages of grief, in many ways. But in a very short amount of time. It was really interesting because you shoot something, obviously that would inform the next scene with things that arose that you didn’t expect. It’s a huge luxury to have when you’re filming, because it doesn’t often happen. But in terms of getting into the mindset, I’m quite methodical in that I knew what things I had to draw on. I knew what stage in my journey I was in and I’d have different triggers. So I’d have certain music, certain images, that I’d bring with me to set to put myself in that headspace. Everyone was extraordinarily respectful of me. If I needed the extra time before they started shooting, they would give me that. They were just very gentle and loving. As soon as they finished the take, they’d unlock me. I preferred to stay on the bed with the long hours and everything, I’d take a little nap. I’m an express napper and I’m a very talented at it. I’ve had to learn to over the years.
Cummings: I had a bit of coffee whilst I’m, like, chained. They were extraordinary. The whole cast and crew.
Bears: I would guess that it’s very difficult to be on a set where everybody is feeling something really, really strong and then – finish for the day. And then go home. What was that process like? Did you guys talk about what you just shot? How did you relax out of what you were doing?
Cummings: That was something we were very aware of in the beginning. Ben was very adamant that the psychological support would be available. In many ways, I’m 24, I was 22, 23, when I shot it, and I felt almost quite protective that someone else didn’t play her in a sense. I knew I had the emotional strength and the tools to get through it and support. I was almost worried for someone else to get the part because I wasn’t sure if – someone younger – I know certainly, if I was younger, I’d probably wouldn’t have been able to have the perspective of a 24-year-old looking back at that. I was very lucky in my support network around me. I was very conscious of it every day. There were very long days so there wasn’t a lot of turnaround. I would always go for a walk down to the beach and go for a swim, or just sit there, for a bit. Because we’re dealing with events that happened to people and they were so traumatic, it was really difficult for me to go and do trivial things like – I don’t know – if they wanted my legs waxed or something – I was like, why I am paying money for this? What am I doing? The very trivial parts of life felt extremely excessive, somehow. I remember sitting on the beach and making the conscious decision that amidst all this pain and destruction that I must create. I can’t make up for it. It would never cancel out that person’s pain, but if I indulge in the absolute horrors of this world, it would only create more destruction. So I knew I had to take the positive route and acknowledge all the hurts of the world. Create something against all of it.
Cummings: Right after that, I filmed like a road trip comedy where I was traveling through New Zealand. I was a vegan activist. I was very grateful for something light. It’s so important that we tell these kinds of stories and have a balance of both in the world. I don’t think the world can be saturated with just these stories because we need to create entertainment for entertainment’s sake as well. I’ve got medical parents who rely on their Friday night movies to get them through their week of diagnosing people with awful diseases. They want something that’s completely lighthearted. But we also need to pay attention to the realities at face value.
HOUNDS OF LOVE is available on VOD and screening theatrically nationwide starting May 12th including New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, San Francsico, Denver and many others. Find a full list here.