Harold’s Going Stiff (2011)

First published by Little White Lies

Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe) is going stiff. No, not quite in the way you might be imagining, although Keith Wright’s film certainly gets plenty of amusing mileage out of the adjective’s ambiguity. Rather the pensioner is patient zero in a new disease affecting men – and not just old ones – across the nation. Dubbed Onset Rigors Disease, or ORD, and caused by consumption of the processed sausage known as ‘Meat-a-Rino’, the condition first produces a painful hardening of the muscles and joints, followed by disorientation, dementia and eventually a ‘zombified’ state that tends to result in violence – although unlike with his fellow patients, Harold’s symptoms have been advancing rather slowly.

Harold’s Going Stiff is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary, following the progress of Harold’s affliction, his developing relationship with bubbly health visitor Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer), and the aggressive antics of a trio of self-appointed, cosh-wielding vigilantes (Andy Pandini, Lee Thompson, Richard Harrison) who travel the dales in search of ORD patients run amok to bag or bludgeon to death. In having ORD researcher Dr Norbert Shuttleworth (Phil Gascoyne) and his Shuttleworth Institute of Neourology share their name with Graham Fellows’ alter ego John Shuttleworth, Wright signals the sort of gentle observational comedy and banalised Northern charm which, with considerable success, he is attempting here.

Except that, like all the best zombie movies, Harold’s Going Stiff also uses its ‘shuffling undead’ scenario to stage serious contemporary concerns, in this case the abandonment of the infirm and elderly, and a general crisis in masculinity. The resemblance of ORD to Alzheimer’s Disease enables a depiction of a healthcare system underfunded, unable to cope, and (broadly) uncaring, while Penny’s quest for Mr Right when surrounded by disrespectful, violent, abusive, exploitative Mr Wrongs – exemplified by, but certainly not confined to, the three vigilantes – leads her to conclude, “There’s no real gentlemen left in this world.”

As some of the all-male ORD sufferers begin “getting better”, the indications of their recovery significantly include “helping with the cooking and the cleaning, you know… a bit of hoovering”, suggesting a return from rogue isolation to the domestic fold. Harold, however, though both a lonely widower and the very earliest ORD victim, has remained in his semi throughout his illness and maintained his homemaking activities even if he has a habit of confusing milk with washing-up liquid. Indeed Harold is, as Penny comes to realise, her ideal man, although from a different generation and part of a rapidly dying breed. And so the same film that starts off with absurd jokes about bodily functions, ends up a bittersweet, character-driven tragic romance.

Anticipation: That title is hardly promising.

Enjoyment: Charmingly daft, till it becomes deadly serious.

In Retrospect: Mockumentary on the monstrousness of modern man.

© Anton Bitel