Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

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If you haven’t seen Bad Boy Bubby, you may want to stop reading this.

I say this not because my review is full of spoilers, but rather that Bad Boy Bubby is a film that’s best viewed with no prior knowledge of what it is about. Much time has passed since I watched a film as strange and original as this.

It begins in a hellish room with no natural light and disgusting, filthy grey walls that’s inhabited by Bubby (Nicholas Hope), a simple man-child, and his obnoxious incestuous mother (Claire Benito) who has brainwashed and abused her son. ‘Mam’ has taught him that the outside world is a dangerous place with poisonous air that will kill him if he dares to leave. She corroborates her lie by wearing a gas mask every time she leaves the flat. To further ensure he obeys, she puts the fear of God into him, placing on the wall a slightly broken model of Jesus on the cross.

With its infamous scenes of animal abuse and wretched themes of incest and nightmarish oppression, it initially seems to the viewer that they’re watching a misery-flick. However, the film is a big surprise; it takes turns that you would never, ever expect. Put simply, Bad Boy Bubby is a demented version of Forrest Gump, with pitch-black humour instead of sickly treacle.

After over thirty years in utter isolation, Bubby manages to escape, beginning an experience so liberating, sensory, vivid and colourful that it must feel like a perpetual trip on psychedelic drugs. I feared for him as he navigated this new world, desperate to understand the variety of people (and animals) he meets. While not every plot development may be believable (parts of them approach Forrest Gump in their sentimentality), the film is edgy and abnormal enough for it not to matter. In fact, I was pleased for any good fortune that came Bubby’s way, regardless of its implausibility.

The film is driven by Nicholas Hope’s brilliant performance, which is a very convincing depiction of a man completely bereft of social conditioning. Bubby speaks in broken English, and the only way he can expand his vocabulary is by imitating verbatim the few abhorrent people around him. He also imitates these degenerates’ behaviour, most notably his mother’s abuse. He does this by dressing in her clothes and repeating her threats, only he directs it towards the bottom of the household hierarchy – their cat. Fortunately, Bubby is eventually conditioned by the normal people of the outside world. Hope’s unhinged, primitive performance is truly compelling.  It is unfortunate that he has been largely absent from cinema following the film’s release in 1993. Alas, his most noteworthy appearance over the past twenty years is in Scooby-Doo (2002).

Despite Bad Boy Bubby‘s merits, it has been plagued by accusations of animal cruelty from crowds and critics, such as Mark Kermode. Kermode is a hardened horror fan, he is not feint of heart, he believes it’s his duty to watch any film from beginning to end. However, he walked out of a film festival screening of Bad Boy Bubby in 1993 – ‘ I have a principle where I definitely leave any film which features actual cruelty to children or animals…  I walked out of the Australian film Bad Boy Bubby in which they mistreated a cat..’  Kermode was not alone, the BBFC objected to it so much they banned it.

Director Rolf De Heer wrote to the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1993, detailing how the cat used in the film was given to them by the Australian Animal Welfare League, who intended on ‘destroying’ the animal once filming was over:

‘We were handed the feral cat by the Welfare League on the strict understanding that we had to return it to them to be destroyed… feral cats are too wild to be tamed and it is considered cruel to keep them in captivity for any length of time.

‘We filmed with this feral cat, and the approved representative of the League was on set at all times during this filming. She had complete authority, from me, to stop filming with the cat, or change the way we were filming. The cat was well fed, treated very gently, and the shots were designed so that we would only have to do one take of one angle to get the desired effect. Filming went very smoothly for these reasons.’

I think De Heer gives a very reasonable account. The scenes in question are indeed disturbing, but I don’t think the cats suffered to a great extent at all as the moments of cruelty last only seconds. These scenes are not just vapid shock tactics either, they are important to Bubby’s character development – he projects the dreadful cruelty he has suffered onto the only creature that is beneath him. Such matters will always be contentious, but, ultimately, the animals benefitted from the production.

Bad Boy Bubby is a film as wild and unpredictable as its primitive central character, who embarks on a remarkable journey armed with only his instinct. Please, watch this instead of Forrest Gump.

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