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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Peeping Tom (1960)

 Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom has undeservedly become a critics’ darling.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis, an introverted voyeur living in his late father’s large London property. To help make ends meet, Mark lets part of the house out to several people. One of his tenants is Helen Stephens, a sweet young woman who befriends him out of pity. Throughout the film Mark struggles to conceal his voyeuristic habit from her.

However, Mark Lewis is not just a peeping tom, he’s a murderer who records his crimes for warped posterity. Despite this, the film is has dated badly – the passage of time has neutered a film that wasn’t particularly disturbing in the first place. Clearly, the film is going to date, it’s 52 years old, but so is Psycho, which covers similar ground but in a appropriately graphic manner.

In a screening of the Hitchcock classic at my local independent cinema, I was surprised by the genuine anxiety I felt during the half-hour or so before the shower scene. This is the film’s defining moment; it is a classic example of a director battering his audience with what they believe is explicit violence when in fact he has shown very little. Michael Powell makes no such illusions in this film – he shows very little, period. For example, in this scene, Mark approaches one of his victims with a blade attached to his camera, and just before the blade makes contact, the woman falls out of frame, shrilly screaming “Mark!”.

Most modern audiences will agree that this just doesn’t cut it anymore. This scene depicts the creation of a snuff film, but it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Mark shares common ground with people like Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, the sordid serial killer partnership whose recordings make for deeply, deeply disturbing viewing. Peeping Tom should feel like a descent into one man’s world of degeneracy, a twisted existence that’s punctuated by lapses into frenzied sexual violence and eroticised death. This can be done without tasteless exploitation, the most germane example I can think of is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). 

Powell should be commended for approaching these darkest of themes, but his work just doesn’t hold up today. To think this film was given an ’18’ certificate as recently as 2001 is nothing short of baffling. The BBFC have since given the film a 15 certificate, but I think a 12 rating would be appropriate.

The lack of visceral edge is exacerbated by poor acting from almost the entire cast. Performances both wooden and overacted drag you further out of the film; it becomes an even bigger problem than its dated violence. However, thanks to Carl Boehm’s generally competent performance, Mark Lewis is the only interesting and somewhat credible character, but even Boehm is guilty of being badly stilted in places.

The only thing that’s noteworthy about this film is its historical audacity. This film was addressing themes that didn’t begin to approach mainstream until the 1970s, the New Hollywood era of rapidly changing opinions on sex and violence. If it had been released 15 years later and not championed by Martin Scorsese and various critics, it may well have faded into obscurity.

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