31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 23: Harold’s Going Stiff (2011)

source: best-horror-movies.com

It’s only after watching this that I’d realized that Day 23 of my horror-a-thon had included an indie movie so indie that it didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It also had practically first-time actors – the lead, Stan Rowe (Harold) had only a bit part in Casualty to his name, and Sarah Spencer (Penny) has no other credits (and a Facebook page result lists some recent theatre and small TV stuff, but implies that this was her first major role).

Far more bittersweet than I’d expected (from reading the paragraph of plot on IMDb), this is a sweet little flick. The plot revolves around the eponymous Harold, who, along with a few other residents of his North Yorkshire village, have been suffering from a muscle-stiffening disease (“Onset Rigour Disease” or “ORD”). Presented in a mock-u-mentary-style format, the invisible filmmakers present clips of interviews in which well-meaning but emotionally-stiff doctors conduct medical research to try to beat this thing. We’re told that it was spread through an addictive, Pepperami-style snack, and that it very slowly turns people stiff (arthritis-style), and then eventually they become violent, inarticulate zombies. And, unlike similar films, the characters actually know that the word “zombie exists”.

source: drafthouse.com

Harold’s case is unique in that he was the first to contract ORD, but his incubation period has been excruciatingly slow. Encouraged by the research implications of this, a local doctor enlists Harold to be his guinea pig for several trial drugs (of the dubious doctor’s own making). Bubbly young nurse Penny is dispatched as a home health care professional to provide stiffness-easing physio, but it soon transpires that the treatments are becoming less effective. As Penny and Harold’s strong friendship develops, so too does a group of yobbish, almost EDL-like vigilantes who are “helping” rid the world of these zombies.

More of a sweet character study than the black comedy I was expecting, the film admittedly moves at a relatively slow pace, and, much like other character-driven films I’ve been seeing this month, it’s vital that the central characters are played to near-perfection. Rowe is believable as what could easily be an allegory for real-life societal views on elderly healthcare, but Spencer is more than convincing as a kind, caring, unlucky, adorably-flawed nurse who grows to genuinely care for Harold across cross-generational and professional boundaries, and her charming presence illuminates the screen. I’m utterly flummoxed to find that she’s not acted before, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had actually done a real-life stint in the NHS.

sources: mansplat.wordpress.com/hairballmedia.com

Because the film focuses mostly on Harold and Penny’s bond, we don’t see much of the other characters, and usually-major plot developments (such as the vigilantes’ character arcs or the aforementioned cause of ORD) are sidelined as bits of humour to supplement the mockumentary style. But even that is nearly shelved in the film’s second half, though it’s not too much of a loss, as it didn’t fully commit to it to begin with – title cards are sometimes missing, and it’s odd that the interviewers themselves are never seen or heard, so we’re just getting a shaky docu-style camera and character confessionals strategically-placed as transition devices.

But yes, this movie is so small it doesn’t have much in the way of an online footprint, and it didn’t seem as though there was any money in the kitty for a proper budget – every time the vigilantes kill a zombie, it involves carefully-edited shots back-and-forth of baseball bats stopping very short of the actors’ actual heads, and increased splodges of very cheap-looking fake blood (but no physical evidence of trauma – though far be it from me to suggest Hollywood-ing up a movie with money and gory SFX). I felt that if the editing had been tightened up a bit, some scenes could have done with being left on the cutting-room floor to make room for the rest of the vigilantes’ story, instead of having their scenes feel like half-hearted soujourns from the main plot. Still, I’m glad I saw this one – when was the last time you saw a bittersweet black comedy about a middle-aged zombie forging a friendship with his lonely young nurse? I expect a Hollywood remake shortly.

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