March 19, 2009

Pontypool (Review)


Pontypool (2008)

Director: Bruce McDonald
Writer: Tony Burgess

RATING:4.5 / 5 zedheads

[FREE TICKETS to a screening of Pontypool in Ancaster, Ontario]

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will CHEW OFF YOUR FACE!

Bruce McDonald's Pontypool is hinged on a wild premise:

What if the English language could transmit a virus to people through infected words? Furthermore, once those words are understood by listeners, what if they drove people insane and turned them into ravenous cannibalistic murderers?

Based on the book Pontypool Changes Everything (1998) by Tony Burgess, this Canadian film by Bruce McDonald (director of Hard Core Logo and The Tracey Fragments) is not a conventional horror film. Although it delivers finely executed suspense and terror, it is not afraid to diffuse the tension with an ironic jab or joke. Pontypool excels as a psychological thriller with humor and a restless metaphor crawling under its skin about the way language shapes our identities and the extent to which communication and words hold a hidden power in our lives.

In the small town of Pontypool, Ontario (east of Toronto), Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie) is a disaffected talk-radio show host broadcasting out of a claustrophobic church basement known as The Beacon. We get the sense he's used to the big-city controversial style of radio; he is clearly not happy with his work reporting school closures, traffic news, and local obituaries. He also hates the winter, and if one thing can kill your spirits in rural Ontario it is definitely the winter. Unfortunately, things begin to get much worse as Mazzy and his skeleton crew - his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and sound technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) - begin to receive calls about citizens rioting, attacking and mutilating oneanother. Reports indicate they are all talking in a strange form of infectious English gibberish. The film's narrative is more or less told through an objective camera that rarely ever leaves the small studio set. At first, the audience and the characters learn of the horrifying details of the infection from callers and reporters outside the studio Then, the threat ends up at (and then through) their front door.

McDonald is one of Canada's most interesting independent filmmakers. Making his mark with the punk-rock road movie Hard Core Logo, every McDonald film since has been an interesting experiment in movie making. One of his earliest films, made in High school, was a zombie film. He explains the power of zombies:

Technically, these people [in Pontypool] aren't really zombies, they are infected people. But zombies were powerful cinematic engines in my world. When I saw Night of the Living Dead, I was eight years old. When I saw Night of the Living Dead, it felt like we could do something like that. It's like when people saw the Ramones for the first time. It's like 'I could do that.'

(qtd. in "Hard-Core Horror" by Eric Volmers)

And Pontypool goes to the heart of what made George Romero's Night so inspiring: fascinating characters, simple production, a claustrophobic sense of dread, and a thoughtful premise.

Shot on a privately financed budget around or under half a million, and filmed on a shooting and post-production schedule that only ended a week or so before the film debute at the Toronto Interntaional Film Festival in 2008, Pontypool nevertheless looks professional and polished. This is due in great part to McDonald's skill as an editor but also because it was shot on the new Red One HD camera.

On screen and in script, McDonald makes excellent use of the limited budget and his few actors and sets by allowing the most extreme horror to take place off-screen in the audience's imagination. Hearing the events unfold and seeing the look on the character's faces while the horror itself remains unseen heightens the suspense. It reminds me of a classic scene from George Romero's Night where Ben describes a scene in which a truck plows through a mob of unfeeling zombies with " . . . ten, fifteen of those things chasing after it, grabbing and holding on. . . . I realized that I was alone, with fifty or sixty of those things just standing there, staring at me! . . . . They didn't move! They didn't run, or - they just stood there, staring at me! I just wanted to crush them! And they scattered through the air, like bugs."

Although we never see this scene, Ben's description is so vivid and genuine that it becomes one the most spectacular images of the film even if it is only in our minds. Pontypool uses the same technique, but it ratchets up the terror with the use of eerie sound editing. There is no way to depict the actual violence on screen that would ever be as effective as what McDonald leaves our imaginations to provide.

Georgina Reilly in

The film moves along with strong pace. McHattie's forceful personality and voice in the role of Grant Mazzy is the core of the film. This is perhaps some of the best work I've seen him do. The film could not work without his character's struggle to come to terms with such a bizarre situation. While the film does try to depict its premise with a straight face, there is the occasional tongue-in-cheek aside. Most of this humour derives from a specifically Canadian cultural context from which the film takes shots at the BBC's pomposity, the animosity and conflict between Anglophones and Francophones, and Canada's "history of violent separatist terrorist movements," etc. The audience I sat with ate this up instantly, though I suspect the nuances might not play to a non-Canadian crowd. I think the true heart of the film, which separates it from other films of this kind, is that it is a product of Canada. Even though it does not appear to be overtly concerned with saying something grand about our national identity and history (unlike TIFF's other big Canadian film: Passchendaele), the issue of language and how/what we communicate is incredibly pertinent to the bi-lingual and multicultural Canadian identity.

The only criticism of the film that I do have is the inexplicable appearance of Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak) who seems to appear only to spouse theories about the nature of the virus. When he appears, the cohesive tension and pacing skips a beat and becomes too focused on exposition. The film never seems genuine or on track until the character exits.

Pontypool may not be your traditional zombie film (the zombies are not the undead, nor are they the raging infected of 28 Days Later). Pontypool may not be your traditional horror film. Pontypool may not be your traditional film. Period.

It is, however, a successfully odd mixture of horror, dark comedy, psychological suspense, linguistic metaphor, and gross-out effects hinged on a fascinating premise that will leave you fearing the power of words.

Live in the Ancaster area? WANT TO SEE PONTYPOOL?

The Zed Word is giving away four free tickets to see a special screening of Pontypool on March 26th at Silvercity Ancaster courtesy of HORROR IN THE HAMMER and MAPLE PICTURES

Click HERE for details on how to win.