A man and woman sit in a car, silently watching volleyball-playing schoolgirls from a parking lot, their eyes and the camera lingering on beading sweat and skin exposed under the hot Australian sun.
It’s prurient interest that opens writer/director Ben Young’s relentlessly brutal debut feature, Hounds of Love, about a couple, John and Evelyn White, who kidnap, rape and murder young girls in 1980s-era Perth, and Ashleigh Cummings, who plays the Whites’ eventual victim Vicki, admits to having some understandable concerns when she first read the script.
“I did have some hesitations because I didn’t know how [Young] was going to shoot it,” says Cummings. “I didn’t know what exactly was going to be seen and what wasn’t, so when I went in for the audition I asked him and he said, ‘I’m not interested in the physical horrors. It’s not a horror film.’”
Young hides the worst just out of view or behind closed doors, sometimes leaving only the objects left strewn around a room to speak to the atrocities committed there. Cummings says the film’s refusal to conform to genre expectations was purposeful, Young choosing instead to focus on the truest way to tell the story, which was ultimately “about the psychology of three women; three parallel stories of three different women who are trying to escape their entrapments – literally and figuratively.
“For me, it’s definitely a feminist story,” adds Cummings. “[It’s] a psychological exploration of the human condition” that is both female-driven and grounded in truth. “These are real things that happen to people, and as a society I think we need to stop shying away from them. These are true events.”
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In researching for the role, Cummings learned all too well the reality of the film’s story, from true life accounts like that of Jaycee Dugard, and chose to play Vicki as going through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“I liked that Ben was on board with that and we allowed her not to be this resistant strong hero the entire way through," she says. "We’re humans, and of course in these situations we’re allowed to suffer, and we’re allowed to give up and have anger – the entire gamut of human emotions. It’s entirely acceptable.”
Still, Cummings acknowledges that the film won’t be for everyone, but says there is something to be gleaned for those who do see it. “I think one of the main purposes of storytelling and filmmaking is for us as a society to engage in empathy and awareness. As confronting as it might be, if you can handle it – as I say, it isn’t for everyone and that’s okay – but just try not to label it, because all we’re trying to do is tell something that’s true. And these things truly happen to people.”
Hounds of Love is now playing at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema — Mason, 531 South Mason, Katy. For information, call 281-492-6900 or visit drafthouse.com/houston/show/hounds-of-love.