Pontypool (2008) – Shut up or die…

Pontypool

I’ve never found zombies scary, especially in the traditional slow-and-stupid incarnations. Sure, there’s a sense of repulsion, largely generated by our anxiety about what happens to our bodies after we’re dead – many people agonise between burial and cremation, so the idea of rising from the grave as brain-eating cannibals is pretty repugnant.

Then there is the sense of creeping nihilistic dread, particularly in the Romero movies. While zombies are usually pretty easy to avoid or kill individually, you know they will always reach critical mass, ready to tear apart the survivors just as internal conflicts tear the group apart figuratively. But still, as terrifying as zombies are on paper or the imagination, to me there’s always the nagging doubt that they’re pretty naff on film – one bullshit metaphor away from a last-minute, unimaginative Halloween costume.

Pontypool, a low-budget Canadian curio, largely avoids the traditional pitfalls of the zombie pic by barely showing any zombies at all. By withholding the usual limb ripping and gut munching, it engages something usually reserved for the supernatural horror genre – our imaginations.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the film opens on a dark, bitter winter morning (pertinently revealed later as Valentine’s Day), and we meet grizzled shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) on his way to work at the local radio station. He is startled by the sudden appearance of a woman, apparently in distress. Mazzy asks who she is, but she can only repeat his words back to him and slip away into the darkness.

Perturbed by his encounter, Mazzy settles into his set, his on air ruminations lubricated by generous slugs of Scotch in his morning coffee. Mazzy, a disgraced former big city DJ, likes rattling cages and get to the heart of the matter, whatever the matter may be. His producer Sydney (Lisa Houle, McHattie’s real life wife) and intern Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) just want him to stay on message and report the weather and school closures. This contradicts Mazzy’s sensibilities as a radio personality – he believes that the best and most profitable listener is a pissed off one.

As the morning progresses, the station receives baffling reports of mob violence breaking out across the town. It appears that the perpetrators are suffering a breakdown in verbal capacity, driving them into a zombie-like rage of homicidal blood lust.

The town is quarantined, and it becomes clear that the mode of infection is the English language itself, with certain words – especially terms of endearment – carrying the virus. This leaves Mazzy in a quandary. He has the power to warn his listeners of the danger, but since he doesn’t know exactly which words are contaminated, runs the risk of spreading the infection further.

It’s an intriguing and at times infuriating premise, lifting the standard genre set up beyond the usual infected zombie bites to something far more elusive and erudite. Pontypool becomes downright metaphysical in the final act, when Mazzy decides that the only way to defeat the menace is to deconstruct language and stop making any sense at all.

This may make Pontypool sound rather highfalutin and hard-going, but the film is always playful and light-hearted, largely thanks to the literate screenplay by Tony Burgess, adapting his own novel. The writing manages to make some pretty abstract ideas feel like breaking news, and is hugely aided by McHattie’s big-hearted, shopworn presence. McHattie, a veteran journeyman of film and TV, illuminates the material with his wonderfully gruff countenance and whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. It’s a terrific performance, McHattie clearly relishing a rare opportunity in a lead role, and he seems to know this character in his soul. Thanks to him, you soon forget that you’re basically watching a man talk and react to things we can’t see for two hours.

This lack of standard zombie action is the film’s strong point, creating the same kind of chills Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radioplay can still generate seventy years on. Welles’ classic broadcast is the most obvious point of reference, although Mazzy’s character also recalls Adrienne Barbeu’s late nite DJ in The Fog, using her lighthouse eyrie to warn the town of impending danger. Mazzy’s position is far more compromised – he can’t see shit from his church basement studio, and his own words may be contaminated.

Pontypool won’t satisfy fans of hardcore undead mayhem, but is certainly worth checking out for jaded horror enthusiasts seeking something more offbeat and cerebral. It’s a little seen movie, and if you buy into its eccentric vibe, part of the fun will be seeking out the few other Pontypool fans out there like survivors in a zombie apocalyse. Then thrash out the playfully oblique meanings until you lose sense of words.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 30/09/2015, in cinema, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, Psychological, Reviews, Thriller and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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