I am a little disappointed that I started with a movie not strictly within the horror genre in my first Grindhouse Theology post. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone but horror fans being able to stomach much of my subject for this week.
Hounds of Love is about a serial killing couple in Perth, Australia, who lure young women into their car, rape, and torture them over a weekend before killing them. The couple is clearly inspired by the real Australian serial killers David and Catherine Birnie, who had much the same M.O. as Hounds’ fictional John and Evelyn White. Because of this, the movie can often feel like true crime, and people have debated how exploitative it is to dramatize the stories of real victims. I honestly do not have a take in either direction, but focusing on Hounds as a true crime story can distract from the very important liberties that the story takes.
The first liberty the movie takes is making Evelyn White into a sympathetic figure. She is seen as a woman completely dragged along by her violent, abusive partner. Similar to her real life counterpart Catherine Birnie, Evelyn has left her husband and children to be with this killer. Hounds draws on this to build a picture of Evelyn as a mother who wants to get her children back and reclaim family life even though she lives in a literal murder house. In making her more sympathetic, she is seen as somehow against the girls being raped when she is not also involved, which is hard to imagine, but it is important for this narrative that Evelyn be a victim in her own right, rather than an equal partner in the crimes. Again, the morality of such a portrayal is a little dicey, especially with such recent history, but it doesn’t personally bother me.
The film takes slightly more far-fetched liberties with the protagonist Vicki’s life. Her family is in the midst of a divorce as the movie starts. Her mother has moved out from with her father, leaving her as a high schooler stuck in between. On one side is her father, a man in a nice suit and a nice house who otherwise has no distinguishing features (although I assume suit equals evil). On the other side is the mother who moves into a poor part of town and wears overalls for half the movie, all in the name of becoming a “strong, independent woman” as the protagonist describes her. But Vicki is not celebrating her mother as strong and independent. She says these words with disgust, as though this strength is more important than her family. This bid at self-iteration is an inconvenience, putting asunder the family and creating a new child of divorce.
If you couldn’t tell, Hounds of Love is really about women, two mothers and a daughter, and the main character is Evelyn White, with Vicki’s mother as her foil. Vicki’s mom’s decision to leave her husband is not given any implicit value at the outset. The audience sees it from the perspective of any child in this situation who is just along for the ride as the adults make decisions.
Evelyn is completely subservient to her man. John leaves the house and depends on her to act as a guard, as cover, and even as bait for the young women. Indeed, the real life Birnie’s were supposed to be so successful in luring women, because there was a woman in the car with a man. This made them appear less threatening, and this fact is part of what makes the Birnie true crime story so notorious. (The movie takes this even further by showing the Whites with a babyseat in the car.)
There are these seeds of discontent within Evelyn. She wishes she had her kids with her. She hates that John craves the “affection” of young women. We watch her take furious bong hits to escape her reality only briefly. Still, any time her loyalty is tested, she always carries out the will of John.
(Side note: The portrayal of John is great. Sometimes serial killers are hyped up as supervillains with amazing intellects, but John is a total loser in any interactions outside of his house. Also he looks like a mustachioed Bill Simmons.)
Vicki is the common denominator for each unhappy couple, and the movie centers on her interactions with Evelyn. If Vicki is going to escape, she finds that she must plant new ideas in Evelyn’s head. Vicki, who bemoaned her strong and independent mother, has to convince her female captor to be strong and independent if she will ever be free. Evelyn begins to plead that Vicki be killed ahead of schedule, because she represents this insidious idea, as if she comes in bearing the knowledge of her mother, which Evelyn cannot stand: A woman can leave a less than ideal situation and be free. A woman doesn’t have to be defined by the man she stands by. Evelyn’s struggle with this idea is at the core of the movie.
Through all this, we watch Evelyn devolve. She resorts to wearing Vicki’s clothes and dancing in the mirror, because she can’t progress past what she thinks John must want. Instead of bathing her young children, she bathes the teenager she brutalized.
It strikes me that questions of women in ministry and church leadership seem to lie dormant at times and at other times bubble to the surface. Just within this last week there was a twitter eruption over some version of this controversy and just today I was texting some friends about this debate (or lack thereof) within their own church. Of course I must acknowledge that I do not think about these things more often, because I do not have to.
I do not want to try to solve this issue in the context of a blogpost on Hounds of Love, but one element of the debate has always bothered me. I, for one, think there will always be churches that do not allow women to hold positions of authority, whether that be the Catholic church or certain Protestant churches, or Eastern churches, which do not fit that binary. Certain church will always try to read those passages in that way. For some people that is a depressing thought, however I am sure those churches will always include women.
What actually bothers me more is the lack of female voices in leadership at churches. I see this as an actually different issue than women as pastors. Any church, even ones that allow women to be pastors or preachers, can lack female voices. When these differing perspectives and concerns are not allowed into the air, it provides a place for whole groups of people to be forgotten, marginalized, or taken advantage of. This is true for any group of people with their own set of concerns.
I see Hounds of Love as illustrating the double-edged sword of what one might call “strong independence.” On the one hand, Vicki is deeply inconvenienced and aggrieved by her mother’s free choices. On the other hand, her life is threatened by Evelyn’s inability to choose for herself. Neither side is completely painless, but Hounds shows us that one is bothersome and one is a threat.
Christian circles (and society in general) is going to be divided for quite some time on the relative merits and deficiencies of so-called identity politics. What is baby? What is bath water? I at least hope that the churches at every spot on the spectrum will absorb their share of inconvenience to dismantle the dangers of any group being completely ignored.