AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Dave Wilson | October 28, 2011
Director: Keith Wright
Writer: Keith Wright
Starring: Stan Rowe, Sarah Spencer, Phil Gascoyne, Andy Pandini, Richard Harrison, Molly Howe, Eleanor James
The last thing the world needs is another zombie movie. But Harold’s Going Stiff has a mad spark of genius behind it. Why not fuse the zombie genre with the kind of sober, earnest documentary you might see about a pressing public health concern on British television? In fact, this film succeeds by embracing that uniquely English tendency to deny and repress, to shudder at the messy, and come up with all manner of euphemisms to disguise the unpleasant.
The result is a subversive, hilarious mock documentary about a new medical affliction called Onset Rigors Disease (ORD) that has been striking the male population of rural England.
ORD begins with a stiffness in the limbs that becomes so debilitating that its victims begin to lurch around. Phase 2 sufferers exhibit mental impairment (i.e. grunting and groaning, heading off into the woods). In the advanced stages, these poor men become downright violent. You know, devouring animals, attacking people, perhaps roaming the countryside in search of human flesh. But really, you mustn’t call them zombies, the hand wringing experts tell us. They’re extremely ill and the race to find a cure is on.
Enter Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe), a gentle, elderly widower who lives on his own somewhere in the North of England, and Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer), the lovelorn, single nurse who hopes that her house calls and physical therapy can bring Harold some measure of relief.
Harold’s case is unique, you see. Not only is Harold the world’s first victim of ORD, but his particular case has never progressed to the advanced zombie-like stages. Instead, frail, long-suffering Harold lumbers around his house with circles under his eyes, increasingly unable to take care of himself. He can’t work in the garden anymore, prepare meals, or brush his hair. Neurologists like Dr. Norbert Shuttleworth (Phil Gascoyne) hope to learn enough from their tests and prodding to one day develop a cure for ORD. Where did ORD come from? Why does it only affect British men? And does it have anything at all to do with Meat-a-rino sausage?
Not everyone understands ORD. In fact, a number of feeble-minded rural thugs, who dub themselves “community volunteers,” are roaming the countryside with clubs and bats, so they can take these bloody zombies down. “If it looks like a zombie, and walks like a zombie, and acts like a zombie, then it’s zombie, innit?” their brutish leader (Andy Pandini) says gravely.
Writer-director Keith Wright has a wonderful ability to bend the tone of his material, gliding smoothly from one narrative strategy to another to suit his needs. Despite the documentary structure, the real heart of the film is the relationship that Harold develops with Nurse Penny, who’s been slighted and unlucky in love for so long, that she really gets attached to this stricken elderly man who treats her with kindness and respect. As Harold and Penny, Stan Rowe and Sarah Spencer bring so much authenticity and emotion to the table that this off-kilter, unsettling comic film is also strangely affecting.
Harold’s Going Stiff won the jury award for Narrative Feature at the 2011 Austin Film Festival.