May 29, 2009
Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy
Rick Roberts as Ken Loney
Boyd Banks as Jay/Osama
Daniel Fathers as Nigel Healing
Georgina Reilly as Laurel Ann
Lisa Houle as Sydney Briar
Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is based on a novel by Tony Burgess called ‘Pontypool Changes Everything’. It stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a brash, almost Don Imus-like radio host who’s recently been hired to host early morning talk radio in the tiny Canadian town of Pontypool, Ontario. On this particular morning, he’s working with his PA, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), and clashing with his producer, Sydney (Lisa Houle), due to his devil-may-care attitude and “greenness” to the shift from working in a bigger market to his current small-town setting. Suddenly, Laurel Ann receives word of a strange incident at a restaurant that hasn’t really reached any of the media blotters. Mazzy reports it anyway as just a meaningless drunken mishap, and the gang moves on.
Shortly thereafter, they get a call in from their “eye in the sky”, Ken Loney (Rick Roberts). Loney reports about a massive riot of people gathering in a violent mob outside of a doctor’s office downtown. Over multiple calls, Mazzy and his audience hear of hideously violent attacks, one person on another. The station broadcasts the plight of Ken being chased through the city by the crowd. Slowly, the audience discovers that the people of Pontypool have been infected by a virus, transmitted by human speech. The disease makes them repeat words over and over, thereby not really saying anything and regressing them to an almost infant state. This causes the infected to become so confused and frustrated by their inability to express themselves that they hunt for another person and violently attack them (violence is, after all, the most basic of all human expression methods).There are few worse places to be when a virus is carried by language than in a radio station that transmits for miles and has a loudspeaker on the outside of the building.
Most horror movies rely on the sense of sight to provide the scares: things you can’t believe you’re seeing, things you don’t want to see or crazy gore you have to see to believe. Sometimes, the sense of taste or smell can be involved (the custard scene in Dead Alive/Braindead comes to mind). There’s also a trend, started by Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project and continued through Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead for a film to get tension from found footage. Pontypool combines the found footage aesthetic with a movie the focuses almost exclusively on an entirely different and rarely seen sense: hearing. Most of the first half of the movie plays out like a modern version of a radio drama, much like Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds, in that the fear comes from you imagining what Ken Loney is seeing and relaying over the phone. The film, by virtue of being shot in a cold, greyish visual style and taking place on a cold winter’s night in basically the middle of nowhere and entire from within the radio station couples that tension with a sense that our protagonists are alone and helpless against the onslaught of the mob.
Most of this film is pretty bloodless, with the exception of actually being able to watch what happens to an infected conversationalist as they descend further and further into madness and can no longer take the pressure of the virus. There are a few visual action scenes to go with the reported ones, the danger is found in what you can’t see, not what you can.
McHattie nails the take-no-guff radio host while Reilly is extremely likeable as the PA and seems a genuinely nice, wholesome kind of girl… one of Canada’s Sweethearts if you will. Houle’s Sydney is a touch too abrasive at first, but she settles into the role as the action ramps up and becomes just as likeable a character as the others and just as worthy of possibly surviving the whole ordeal. The only questionable character is a doctor who ends up reaching the station midway through the film is Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak) who serves no purpose other than medical analysis to serve the plot… and a bit of comic relief due to his excitability and abnormal fascination with the inner workings of the disease.
If you’re tired of sequels and sick of remakes, a trip to Pontypool is the way to go. It’s original, thrilling, intense, and even a bit darkly funny. It says something about the nature of this film that I saw it in a special showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, not in a theater. If you want to see Pontypool, you might have to dig a little to reach its limited release in May 2009. But, whether you see it in a theater, at a festival, or on DVD, by all means don’t pass up the opportunity to get infected.