I don’t want to drop any spoilers here, but there’s a beetle out there somewhere (the Japanese Red Bug, to be precise) whose mother works herself to death to feed her young. Then, once she drops dead from exhaustion, the young eat her...even in death, she’s serving her babies. Yeah...so anyway!
20-minutes long and full of extreme body-horror goodness, Hungry Joe is not for the faint of heart. But if you can stomach its gauche gross-out exterior, you’ll find it belies a surprisingly heartbreaking commentary on parenthood, postpartum depression and the moral collapse of the family unit.
The film opens with home video footage of young married couple Craig (Joe Sims) and Laura Gilligan (Laura Bayston), who are ready to start enjoying their life as a family. They’ve just bought their first house, and Laura is pregnant with a boy - “Little Joe!” Things couldn’t be better, and they couldn’t be happier. But, mere seconds later, the ominously scored title screen tells us this isn’t to last. Make no mistake, this is a full-on horror experience that doesn’t let up from the moment it begins (about 30-seconds in), to its inevitably tragic ending.
We’re taken straight into Laura complaining to – a somewhat patronising – health visitor about her son’s constant need for food. The health visitor insists Joe just has a “healthy appetite” and suggests she should “indulge” it. This “advice” is the first of many times we see what is essentially a child with an eating disorder, and a parent – obviously suffering from postpartum depression – desperate for someone to listen, being repeatedly let down by the system. It’s is a story that’s all too familiar; a troubled family, fallen between the cracks, all but forgotten by the very people supposedly there to help and beaten down by society’s ignorance.
Laura Bayston gives an impeccable sure-to-be award-winning performance in the lead role. The frustrated desperation shows on Laura’s face, and the mental anguish, so well hidden by the movie’s careful use of dialogue, is apparent only through her body language. Thoroughly compelling and heart-achingly relatable to far too many people, Bayston’s performance is a tour de force of emotion. If Laura is the character we can all relate to and root for, then Andrew Greaves’ Joe is the polar opposite. To everyone else, Joe is a normal boy. But, to his mother, the self-concerned and wholly apathetic child/man is a monster: by extension, it’s hard for the viewer to see him any other way, either. That being said, there’s still a very empathetic element to this person. Dawe and Holbrook often remind us that Joe is a just a boy/man, a human being with problems (many not his fault) like anyone else. I mostly attribute this to the writing though, and less to do with Greaves’ performance, which is entirely unpleasant, as well it should be.
Hungry Joe’s horror-movie ambience comes mainly from its atmospheric, dark and gloomy cinematography (James Oldham) and excellent sound design (music by Hollie Buhagiar), which never ceases with its melodically intrusive and oppressive hit-you-in-waves-like construction. It’s both beautiful and horrifying in equal measure.
In all honesty, Hungry Joe is a hard film to recommend to anybody. Not because it’s bad but because it’s so repulsive and so dismal you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could stomach it, particularly the last third of the film. I’m well versed in the way of body-horror, and I found parts of this difficult to watch—so well done for that!
But if you can get past that (and I strongly suggest you try), there’s an incredibly clever bit of filmmaking here, which is held together by the empathetic characters, superb performances and heart-rending familia tragedy at its core.