Stalled (2013)

Stalled first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

It was an underground coffin in Buried (2010), a stopped skilift in Frozen (2010), a locked sauna in 247˚F (2011), a broken-down lift in each of Abwärts (1984), Blackout (2008), Devil (2010) and Elevator (2011) – and you can guess from the titles where Phone Booth (2002) and ATM (2012) were mostly set. From such confined locations, where characters and their pent-up feelings must either out or else perish under all the extreme pressure, intensely claustrophobic thrills can emerge. Yet while Christian James’ Stalled certainly falls into this tradition, its broad social satire, wryly banalised genre parody and literal toilet humour predominate as an unnamed handyman protagonist (played by the film’s writer Dan Palmer) becomes trapped in the cubicle of a ladies’ bathroom during a zombie apocalypse.

As a strictly white-collar Christmas party takes place on an office building’s upper floors, our lowly janitor rises hesitantly from the basement with a toolbox full of stolen cash, only to retreat into a toilet stall when the partygoers start getting it on – and then eating each other. Discovering that a sharp-tongued if unseen woman (Antonia Bernath) has taken refuge two doors down, the maintenance man tries to devise a way for both of them to escape the small bathroom even as it gradually fills with zombified office workers (in hilariously ridiculous Yuletide-themed fancy dress).

Caught between jobs, excluded from any meaningful relationships, estranged even from his own mother (while still living with her in his late twenties), stripped of his trousers, drugged up on ecstasy, and beleaguered by monstrous bureaucrats who all want a piece of his flesh, the arrested maintenance man will find himself engaged in a (class) war against his shuffling superiors – with only a discarded bra and some severed fingers for weapons – and will be confronted with the stalled nature of his life.

Pitched somewhere between a one-man Shaun of the Dead (2004) and TV’s The Office, James’ film shows plenty of absurdist genre savvy, somehow managing to reference George A. Romero, The Evil Dead and ‘the Mummy’ (with bandages made of toilet paper) without ever straying far from the limited space of a water closet (or crawlspace, or elevator, or phone booth). Thrown in for good measure are a hallucinatory zombie dance sequence, a genuinely jaw-dropping incest joke, and a discussion of the relative merits of Garfield over the Son of God (“a decade of mild chuckles… is infinitely more than Jesus Christ’s ever done for me”). Stalled offers gently passive-aggressive irreverence of a very English stamp – and if, as it struggles at times to squeeze into its own predetermined constraints, it is rough and occasionally flabby around the edges, its heart is definitely in an amiable place.

strap: In Christian James’ claustrophobic zombie ‘apocaloo’, an arrested maintenance man must engage in (class) war against his shuffling superiors.

© Anton Bitel