Fikri Jermadi flinches at Paul Holbrook and Sam Dawe’s horrific effort.
It should be noted that there are two versions of ‘Hungry Joe’ floating out there on the Internet. One, hosted on the channel ALTER, is a straight-up ‘normal’ version of the film. This is to be contrasted to the version I saw, which was armed with an additional audio description. These are meant to aid the visually impaired in viewing the film. Being the one I watched, it became the definitive edition for me.
Directed by Paul Holbrook and Sam Dawe, ‘Hungry Joe’ is a horror film to scare your socks off. We follow the story of Laura (Laura Bayston), a single mother who lives with his son, Joe (Andrew Greaves). Through old home videos of this little family (inclusive of Laura’s husband Craig [Joe Sims]), we see the beginnings of a happy family, one excited to start a new life with their baby.
Over time, however, it becomes clear that something is not quite right with Joe. Largely to do with his insatiable appetite, Laura and Craig consulted with a variety of experts about his condition. Craig’s presence here, the early years of which indicates his full love and support by gripping Laura’s hand in discussing Joe’s condition with an NHS nurse, makes his absence later in the film all the more conspicuous.
As the story progresses, the light in Laura’s eyes dim, as she struggles to keep up with the exponential growth of Joe’s hunger. At her wits’ end, her attempts to find a solution hits a brick wall each time, either with other family members or numerous counselors and experts, all of whom fail to recognise the problem. That’s not to say they don’t see it; theirs is a stiff upper lip approach, sweeping everything under the carpet to ignore the mounting evidence.
That is perhaps the first point of discussion worth having here. The contrast between the Laura seen in the home videos and the one we see for the majority of the film creates a certain sadness. I did wonder what happened to Craig as well. Did he find the kitchen a little too hot, and decided to hotfoot out of there? Could it be that he met a grimmer fate somewhere along the way? Whatever it is, this story of the woes of a single mother isolated by society is an indictment on the system itself.
It is this systemic and systematic ignorance of their plight which worsens the scenario. The number of times in which the family’s disheveled state is seen as a condition to be disciplined (rather than a cry for help it most probably was) indicates a failing society as a whole. That structure is one that, through years of underfunding, is probably on life support anyways, but it doesn’t make this lack of empathy any less startling.
What is even more infuriating is how we know they know Laura knows the problem Joe is quickly becoming. A quiver in their expression here, a firming of the lip there, and a glance away from both Laura and Joe speaks loudly of an attitude that is ubiquitous in its universality; it is a sickening superficiality that audiences in both the United Kingdom and Malaysia will be familiar with.
Having said all that, ‘Hungry Joe’ also works as a straight up horror film. There are plenty of moments which made me want to hit the pause button. I tried my best to resist, but ultimately I must admit to several moments of giving in to temptation, coupled with some choice swear words uttered under my breath here and there; unlike Joe, I don’t have the strongest of stomachs for the genre.
Credit must go to the filmmaking team. Beyond the vision of Holbrook and Dawe, everyone else brought their A-game. James Oldham’s colour palette made an unremarkable British suburbia look just that bit more cinematic, while the decision to delay the revelation of Joe can perhaps also be credited to the editor, Ben Williams-Butt, successful in stretching the tension and suspense just that bit longer.
The film’s quality also came from the production design team, led by Jim Brown. Allied with the sound work of Tom Mercer and Owen Shirley, I squirmed and flinched more than a few times. The soundscape truly accentuates what is on screen; you don’t just see Joe munching through his dinner, you also feel the insatiable greed that consumes everything, greatly affecting Laura.
What makes the version I saw unique is the audio description by Matt Jarman. Though important, I tend not to watch such films as much. By and large, they are an ostensibly separate part of the film and the film process, often tacked on after the fact. Here, however, Jarman’s work feels very much like a part of the film itself, his voice, tone and diction adding a sinister element ramping up the film’s malice just that bit more.
Additionally, I also like how the film’s grounding in reality highlights the sense of smell. Early in ‘Hungry Joe’, Laura speaks of how the smell distresses her, overwhelmed by the mounting trash and vomit. I did not expect that, for many similar films often comb over that specific factor. Here, however, it is a perfectly sensible point of consideration, one that both surprised and delighted me in equal measure.
All this adds up to a quality film. The horror might be too much for some (hence the warning on the label). That ‘Hungry Joe’ does exactly what it says on the tin is testament to the skill and vision of the filmmaking team. Along with Matt Jarman’s layered audio description wrapping an indictment of a crumbling and isolating aspect of society, the film is more than enough to satisfy your urges.
Featured image credit: Magda Ehlers / Pexels