Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Harold's Going Stiff - review

2011 (UK)

Contains mild spoilers.

I've noticed a change in mood this last few years. Call it a post-modern response to the accepted mainstream post-apocalyptic trope fashioned by Romero, tweaked by Boyle, maintained by The Walking Dead and copied a thousand times until deplete of originality and utterly derivative. There are those who argue against straying too far from given norms especially with the zombie genre, but I believe without subversion and disruption a genre can get stale and tired. Everyday I'm seeing more mentions that 'zombies' are done and the story has been told; but one thing researching and writing this blog has taught me is the 'zombie' is a timeless metaphor and more than capable of adapting and changing, to make loss of identity and self fearful and meaningful for each new generation.

Written and directed by Keith Wright, Harold's Going Stiff, is an extremely low budget attempt at crafting a zombie film that while respectful of all that's gone before, wants to try something fresh and new. There is a ground zero, but it's tired old widower Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe), and his loss of self isn't from reanimating after dying with a primal instinctual to run out into the streets and eat people, it's from the gradual onset of dementia made worse by contracting an all new debilitating zombification disease. There are also zombies, and they do eventually become a bit wild and dangerous and spill out into the world, but they're not actually dead, they aren't particularly out of control in any apocalyptic sense, and the message really ought to be these people are ill and should be cared for while a cure is sought, rather than beaten senseless and dispatched at first sight.

Like Warm Bodies and In the Flesh, Harold's Going Stiff is another attempt at a new post-Romero narrative where zombies might not actually be irredeemably lost forever, might actually pose more of a societal dilemma than full on apocalyptic challenge and might not inherently be the bad guys. The situation is more ambiguous, more complicated and less black and white with sympathy and sadness allowed for all sides. There's also a narrative switch and blurring of boundaries, allowing the audience to relate and sympathise with the thing that would normally be the cause of the anxiety and fear with the so called hero now positioned as the bad guy (or girl) abusing his position of power and showing painful ignorance and prejudgement of the situation. The metaphor of loss is almost expanded to include the survivors who seem to have abandoned their humanity to their prejudice and fear.

Harold has lost his wife, is isolated, lonely and is now losing his mind. On top of this one day he wakes with more severe stiffness which at first his doctor attributes to arthritis, then when more men, some much younger start exhibiting the same symptoms, he's dubbed the first victim of ORD or Onset Rigors Disease. To help with deal with his new issues Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer), a member of the home nursing team, and also a character with her own deep rooted loneliness and sadness is sent to Harold's home where the two instantly hit it off and come to have an authentically heartfelt and deeply warming friendship. Watching Penny and Harold dealing with the ups and downs of his gradual decline to ORD is poignant and moving and both actors do a remarkable job portraying what is a delicate friendship and the central strand of the film.

Let's not forget though this is also a comedy. Set and filmed in South Yorkshire, Harold's Going Stiff is daringly authentic with sharp-dialogue, sets and story that convey both the bleakness and beauty of Northern England with it's speak-your-mind no nonsense humour. With ORD sufferers on the increase and stages 2 and 3 proving to be a bit harder for the over burdened authorities to deal with vigilante groups have set themselves up to deal with what many consider the now dangerous zombies that are wild and uncontrollable. Jon Grayson (Andy Pandini) leads one such ragtag assortment who have bought into the out of control zombie panic and believe themselves front line heroes fighting the good fight. They're a motley trio of three dim witted bullies with a hit first mentality and provide much of the slapstick and wry dark humour. There's a lot going on; they're insensitive, they're oafish, they're banter is juvenile and puerile, and more importantly they're a great vehicle for Wright to be playful and light hearted with what could easily have become quite a dark story.

ORD stage 1; stiffness, leads to sores and deterioration of all mental faculties, stage 2, then with stage 3 comes total breakdown, loss of self and violent uncontrollable outbursts. In many ways it is the atypical zombie albeit not dead, yet parallels with dementia and the inability of society to deal with the condition can't shrugged off. Dementia care is a big issue in the UK, and with resources stretched and people living longer the picture painted by Wright of vast swathes of the male population suddenly affected by the fast and debilitating condition spilling out into the countryside is powerful and perhaps not quite so far fetched. As for their portrayal, we learn that the cause of all this trouble is actually the special sauce found on an all new must have man-snack called meat-a-rino that Harold aside, seems has the same effect on first bite, as crack cocaine. Deterioration is fast with stage 3 sufferers made-up to look quite deranged and dishevelled as they goose-step around the countryside with limbs still as stiff as boards. They're deliberately comical and easily dispatched almost exclusively with excessive trauma to the head. It's low budget but that doesn't mean they don't look great, and behave uniformly with authenticity. As with the rest of the film it's abundantly clear that attention to detail was a high priority with beatings, deaths shot so that they never break the illusion.

With hauntingly good writing, confident film making and commendable acting, it just goes to show with even the most modest of budget excellent films can be produced. Harold's Going Stiff is a true indie gem; poignant, memorable, brilliantly paced and ultimately extremely satisfying for both the zombie-genre fan and general film fan that I am. Keith Wright's docudrama approach to style works tremendously well and the blending of first person narration with traditional cinema style is never obvious or distracting even though I was conscious of what was going on. Hilarious (the zombie mice have to be seen) and heart warming, with a touch of horror, Harold's Going Stiff is a refreshingly original drama that's recommended, 8/10.


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