Dir. Bruce McDonald

The small town of Pontypool descends into chaos when the residents become infected by a mysterious virus that seems to spread through the English language itself. Inside the local radio station, the small production crew of shock-jock Grant Mazzy’s show continue to broadcast news and updates of the ensuing chaos outside as the town spirals into madness. They are unaware though, that their broadcasts may very well be adding to the contagion…

The last decade has produced a staggering array of films that, since 28 Days Later, have attempted their own spin on the zombie/infection/virus sub-genre; and like all cinematic cycles, this one also produced some titles that were much more original and creative than others. Pontypool is perhaps one of the most striking and interesting films to have come out of this resurgence in the popularity of the zombie flick. It is based on the 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything and was adapted for the screen by its author Tony Burgess. Contrary to my initial assumption, it is not a British/Welsh thriller – it takes its name from the other small town called Pontypool – the one in Canada, not Wales.

Pontypool is, strictly speaking, not a zombie film - though it certainly exploits and subverts a number of the same conventions and tropes that exist in zombie movies. It also expertly draws on the early films of John Carpenter – siege movies inspired by Rio Bravo in which a small group of people are confined in a limited space while outside forces attempt to get in - usually to do harm – and also seems to have been heavily inspired by Orson Welles’ radio drama War of the Worlds, in which a devastating global alien invasion was reported straight into the homes of horrified listeners. Interestingly, a radio play of Pontypool was recorded alongside the film and is available on the Blu-Ray release.

The film opens with Grant Mazzy (Steven McHattie – so good in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence) driving through the dark and snowy early morning to the radio station. He has a strange encounter with a woman in the middle of nowhere and soon continues on his journey. This encounter basically begins building the unshakable air of foreboding that wafts throughout the rest of the film. Once Mazzy reaches the radio station – nicely located in the basement of a church on the outskirts of town – like the other characters already there, we don’t leave its drab interior for the remainder of the film. Director Bruce McDonald uses the limited location to his advantage, carefully building up the sense of dread and utilising the space to create a palpable sense of claustrophobia.

The suspense continues to mount as information about the carnage outside is relayed to us through conversations Mazzy has with his traffic and weather reporter who is located at a vantage point above the town. Characters describe the actions occurring outside the walls of their sanctuary and discuss possible causes and solutions throughout the film. Aside from a few bloody moments, most of the violence and chaos is left solely for the audience to imagine in their own head – one of the main reasons why Pontypool is so effective as a thriller. There’s nothing quite so scary as the images and scenarios dreamt up in the dark recesses of one’s own mind.

Another interesting and highly original concept contained within the film is the virus itself and how it spreads. Completely negating the usual sort of conventions featuring a mysterious virus that spreads through bites and scratches, Pontypool boasts the devastating and mentally debilitating virus that spreads through sound waves and has infected language itself. When the infection takes hold, the hapless victims become zombie-like. When they eventually break into the radio station, they press themselves against the sound-proof glass of the booth – providing what is arguably the most familiar looking ‘zombie’ imagery of the film. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the central idea is the manifestation of it; namely the jargon and nonsensical jibber-jabber spouted by the infected. This was touched on before in Kerry Anne Mullaney’s low-fi shocker The Dead Outside, in which the infected where portrayed as somehow seeming to retain an aspect of their former selves due to the fact they retained the ability to speak and mumble random thoughts. The effects, as in this film, are quite chilling. The idea of words as virus is most intriguing – and interestingly, only certain words are infected.

Perhaps it might be best if I let director Bruce McDonald explain this himself, as he did at Rue Morgue's 2008 Festival of Fear. ‘There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually its words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can't express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.’

With a lean cast and rich, full-bodied writing, the characters, particularly Lisa Houle as producer Sydney, become people we care for - and when their already small numbers begin to decrease, the effect is particularly crushing. One aspect of the film that didn’t particularly work was the rather annoying doctor who is dropped into the story – far too conveniently – to spout endless exposition and explain what the virus is and how the others might attempt to avoid contracting it. His presence opens up a number of plot holes that threaten to mar the film’s overall integrity. As soon as he enters the narrative, the film begins to fall apart.

Audiences wanting something truly visceral may not appreciate the suggestive aspects of Pontypool - a quirky, highly original and daring film that allows itself to be different.

DVD label Kaleidoscope Entertainment is poised to unleash Pontypool in the UK on January 25th. Extra features on the DVD include cast and director interviews, two short movies and a documentary about the sound design of the film titled Behind the Sound. The Blu-ray will exclusively contain Pontypool – The Radio Play.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for this review. I've been wanting to see this film ever since I first heard about it, and have been wanting to read the book since before even that. Strangely, I haven't done either yet. I love it when books play with the written word--two of my favorite novels of recent years are "Raw Shark Texts" and "House of Leaves"--and although I don't think "Pontypool Changes Everything" plays with format like these two, the concept is still intriguing. It seems like something that William S. Burroughs would have come up with, had he watched enough horror movies.

Pax Romano said…
Thank you for this excellent review of a film I've yet to see. For whatever reason, it's still not available on Netflix, nor is at any local video stores nearby. I can not wait to experience this one!
Matt-suzaka said…
Such a great film and you hit on many of the notes that I loved about Pontypool. Setting a movie about infection spread through language in a radio station is such a great idea. I love the tension that is built throughout the films first two acts and the singular setting is phenomenal.

There are some issue with the doctor stuff, but in the grand scheme of things, it's a wonderful breath of fresh air and I love when a movie can effectively frighten me with my own imagination. Great review3 for a great film, James...happy to hear you enjoyed this one!
James Gracey said…
Jonny, that's a wonderful description of this film - 'It seems like something that William S. Burroughs would have come up with, had he watched enough horror movies.' So true - and I'd like to think Burroughs would have 'dug it.'

Pax, keep an eye out for it and leap upon it as soon as you can - it's such an interesting little flick that attempts and (for the most part) succeeds in trying something different.

Matt I agree - the tension that is built throughout the first two acts, and the setting is fantastic. But I curse the moment that fucking doctor showed up. Oi! NO!!

Still such a cool film though.

Thanks for comments guys - please don't be strangers now, y'hear?
My God man, you really know how to write a review. Excellent!

I honestly had no real clue what this movie was about but kept seeing it on everyone's top lists of 2009. I was getting fairly bummed that it wasn't available to me yet. I live in too small a town - there are no horror movie festivals or screenings nearby, etc.

And after your review I can safely order it from Amazon, where it went on sale today.
So thanks.

And I agree, McHattie was terrific in A History of Violence.
Very much agreed here James, a very clever film that does so much with so little. I think this one will quickly pick up steam and become one of the strongest releases of the year!
deadlydolls said…
Super review. I FINALLY saw this as it was, oddly enough, sitting on a shelf at my library. Weird that Netflix still doesn't carry it.

Also, I totally agree about your point on the doctor. It was a strange choice that broke the tension a tad too oddly for me, but that aside, I loved this movie.

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