Rolf De Heer is one of Australia’s most talented and diverse filmmakers. From the race conscious Tracker, to the silent-era homage Dr Plonk, De Heer utilises local talent to make Australian films crossing genre and style. Ten Canoes is set exclusively in the Northern Territory and tells a coming of age story about passion and respect amongst a tribe of indigenous Australians; Alexandra’s Project is a revenge thriller set in the suburbs.
And then there’s Bad Boy Bubby.
I am not so easily horrified by films. Indeed, only last weekend I watched an Asian horror film about evil spirits that barely flickered above the ho-hum. The first half hour of Bubby however made me repulsed by the squalor and abuse and I questioned whether or not I would make it to the end of the film. I could sense however that in a perverse way, De Heer was having some fun with us. It is as though he said to himself, “Now, just how putrid and disturbing can we make this scene?”
Bubby, played by Nicholas Hope, is an idiot savant who has been locked in a one bedroom cell for 35 years by his mother who shares the room, her bath and bed with him. Her psychological abuse is unrelenting and her slaps and punches leave him cowering. She prevents him from leaving by wearing a gas mask and telling him the air outside will kill him. The cell is dirty and sweaty and bare save for a few pieces of furniture.
With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Bubby keeps a ‘pet’ cat locked in a cage which he antagonises with a stick.
His brain slowly rationalises how the cat could survive outside if it didn’t wear a gas mask.
His mother answers, “it survives by holding its breath.”
“What’s holding your breath?” he asks
She grabs him from behind, blocking his airway.
Now he knows. He experiments on the cat only to find the cat doesn’t care for having its airways closed. He wraps its body in cling wrap. It still finds a way to breathe. Breathing is a little harder through the plastic and he is somewhat surprised that the cat dies.
When his father turns up, this proves the last straw for Bubby who eventually cling-wraps his parents. He stumbles into the outside world for the first time and sadly this is where the film loses some of its impact. As gross as the first Act was, the claustrophobia and tension was becoming compelling.
Bubby stumbles from one group of welcoming strangers to the next. They all take care of him in some way which I didn’t find wholly believable. He gets by with a few phrases he has learnt from his mother or picked up along the way. This alternately gets him into trouble or endears him to the next audience.
Eventually he meets Angel, a nurse at a disabled person’s home, who has breasts like his mothers. He demonstrates affection toward her and she welcomes him. Angel has experienced abuse at the words and attitudes of her judgemental and self-righteous parents. In a moment of dark humour, the cling wrap killer dispenses some movie justice.
Nicholas Hope when left alone on the set, ably plays the simpleton who discovers and reacts to the world around him. He does not pre-empt the consequences of his actions and appears bewildered but nonplussed when things do occur. When he interacts with others however we sense a spark in the actor that belies the reality of the character.
It is easy to see why Bad Boy Bubby has become a cult favourite since its release in 1994 and is an important stepping stone in the life of an intriguing and talented Australian filmmaker.