Reviewed by: David Graham

"These two British upstarts show just how much can be done when you're brave enough to keep things intimate."

An ingenious little situationist zom-com. Buddies-since-boyhood Dan Palmer and Christian James make good on the promise they've shown previously on the writing and directing fronts respectively, with Palmer's endearing presence making his lead role much more than just a self-indulgent showcase. With such an apparently limiting premise, it's amazing the amount of cinematic mileage James squeezes out of Palmer's witty, quirky script, while the sterling SFX are sure to give hungry horror fans a kick. Where the likes of Romero and even - to a lesser extent - Edgar Wright have sometimes stumbled recently when insisting on painting on a broader canvas than their budgets and imaginations can accommodate, these two British upstarts show just how much can be done when you're brave enough to keep things intimate.

A rogue maintenance man finds himself in a predicament when he makes off with a toolbox full of loot at an office Christmas party. While deliberating over his booty in the bogs, he takes shelter in a cubicle from a parade of drunk dolly birds, but soon there's something scarier than the Lambrini-and-mistletoe-toting horde scratching at the door. An undead outbreak takes place in the building, leaving the errant janny trapped in his 6 X 4 crapper coffin. His will to survive is tested to the limit, but a new sense of motivation resulting from a sudden realisation sees him frantically planning the best way to escape, with not much more than a screwdriver and the contents of the john.

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While it begins with an all-too-familiar view of British working-to-middle class anxiety - effortlessly and humorously depicting both our no-doubt minimum-waged (anti-?)hero's dilemma and the office workers' depressingly shallow existence - Stalled manages to go deeper than might be expected into actual existential territory. While it's never clear what keeps Palmer's character going - at least at first - there's an implicit notion that his salt-of-the-earth likes - defiantly at odds with the office drones who might as well be zombies before the fact - will always suffer beneath their apparent superiors in society, and this gives him a defiant edge over his flesh-craving assailants. His practical handiness also functions as a double-edged criticism of the useless, besuited masses - he may not be able to touch-type, but he'll still come out top where it matters, in everyday matters like unblocking gore-choked toilets and fending off young professional ghouls.

The us-and-them tension keeps Stalled ticking over nicely in its early stages, but it really gives the action a human focus when the script springs its game-changing surprises. With our protagonist in such dire straits, the form in which his determination to live comes takes the action into unexpectedly bittersweet places, including the best tribute to Gremlins' classic 'how I found out there's no Santa Claus' scene in recent memory. With such a solid emotional core, Palmer's frequent references to his inspirations become gratifying rather than grating as can sometimes be the case with horror homage and in-jokery; his empathy for his characters is reflected in his obviously sincere affection for the films he's riffing on.

On the directing front, James expertly orchestrates several surprisingly intense suspense sequences and even some heart-in-mouth jump-scares, despite - or maybe partially because of - the disarmingly bright lighting. He's a dab hand with the splatstick elements, ensuring every grotty detail elicits a snicker, and he's fearlessly deadpan at many points too, allowing little more than Palmer's face and a few craftily lo-fi elements to sell the fun - the mileage he gets out of some simple graffiti is brilliantly charming. He could have made more of the claustrophobic locale in places, but overall it's pretty remarkable to keep the laughs and gasps coming thick and fast with such a challenging setting, even if the tight 84 minute run-time feels ever so slightly stretched.

It's rare for a horror film to have brains, guts and heart, but Stalled is that rare sleeper hit with all three in abundance; don't be surprised to be taken aback by some of the places it's willing to go by the end. It also functions as a new alternative Chrimbo-flick, although the holiday atmosphere isn't in effect as much as it perhaps could have been. With an entertaining but deceptively nuanced central turn from Palmer and his multi-faceted script marking him out as a bona-fide hero of the horror genre and hopefully beyond, plus solid work behind the camera from James, Stalled is sure to please anyone who appreciates low budget ingenuity or just fancies another bite of Shaun Of The Dead-style hilarity.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2014
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A janitor is trapped in the toilets when a zombie outbreak strikes the office party.

Director: Christian James

Starring: Dan Palmer, Antonia Bernath, Tamaryn Payne, Mark Holden, Giles Alderson

Year: 2013

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK

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