Updated: Jun 17
A single mother struggles to bond with her apathetic child; born with an insatiable and increasingly inhumane appetite.
After several highly impressive entries from writing/directing duo Paul Holbrook and Sam Dawe, touching on topics ranging from poverty to dementia, the latest offering from Shunk Films marks a graduation to an entirely new level of immersive experience.
Hungry Joe follows a single mother as she struggles to cope with a child that refuses to stop eating. Staying true to form, Holbrook and Dawe base the initial premise in real world issues, opening the story with new mother Laura (Laura Bayston) struggling with breastfeeding her new baby, the titular Joe, finding only acerbic responses and thinly veiled accusations of being a poor mother. This is repeated in the school system as Joe grows older and concerns are raised about his hygiene and suspected malnourishment. The opening act of the film shows Laura repeatedly raising the alarm that something is not right with Joe, only for the world to keep suggesting that she is the problem. In each instance, it is reinforced that Laura will have to face this nightmare alone, essentially trapping Laura (and us) with a developing threat that may soon become inescapable.
As the film settles into its horror framework, the story resists the temptation to fall into recognisable tropes. Instead what we are given is the slow decline of a dedicated mother as she watches her child’s insatiable appetite transform him into a monster. Essentially Hungry Joe becomes an origin story for a truly petrifying horror character.
The craft involved in creating a film experience as unforgettable as this is nothing short of breath taking. The style of the film puts you on edge long before a tangible threat is ever revealed. Every element, from its wide-angle close-ups to the chilling score to the teeth-grinding sound mix, envelops you in a carefully constructed world of terror. Key shots positioning Laura in the left of frame while looking left immediately communicates how trapped she is. Extreme close-ups of people eating, coupled with exaggerated foley of chewing and slurping creates a stomach-churning unease, setting the tone for the gut-wrenching ordeal to come.
Production design in particular is key to both the mood of the film and the storytelling. Meticulous attention to detail is put into the deterioration of Laura’s family home, mirroring her deteriorating mind and crumbling hope. Coupled with cinematography reminiscent of The Exorcist, this film brilliantly builds a world almost as chilling as the burgeoning monster that inhabits it.
All of this is underpinned by the exceptional performance of Bayston’s Laura Gilligan whose descent into hopelessness requires Bayston to sell unease, anxiety, frustration, fury and despair. As with her previous appearance in Dawe and Holbrooke’s A Girl and Her Gun, Bayston hits these beats and then some. At no time are we frustratedly watching her do something that a rational human being would never do. She remains relatable and her actions understandable, even in some of her darker and more morally questionable moments. Bayston’s performance puts a real mother into these extraordinary circumstances. No matter how outlandish the film becomes, the embattled mother at the centre of it remains someone that we all recognise and grounds her character journey in reality.
It would also be unfair to not highlight Andrew Greaves as Joe himself. Similar to The Omen, the character of Joe is played with the innocence of ignorance. Joe has no idea of the beast that he is evolving into. He has no concept of the boundaries that he is crossing or any idea of the consequences of failing to stop. As far as he is concerned, he is just a hungry boy and the lack of malice makes him altogether more terrifying. Greaves shows absolutely no fear in diving into the utterly repulsive scenarios through which his character is revealed to us. Furthermore, his ability to convey threat via Joe’s purely instinctive desires works in tandem with the moments in which he displays genuine affection for his mother, resulting in some of the most disturbing scenes in the film.
It goes without saying that Hungry Joe is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. It is a wonderfully torturous watch, delivered with sublime film craft and powerful performances that make it a top-tier short film. Holbrook and Dawe create a beautifully grotesque movie that haunts and taunts you, just the way great horror should.
If you love horror, then this movie is a must-see.
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Studio: Shunk Films | Year: 2020 | Genre: Horror | Duration: 22 Mins | Suitability: Mature - Scenes of gore and violence