Reading over some of my recent articles, it occurred to me that I’ve been giving out a lot of mediocre reviews, and maybe even coming off as a bit of a cranky bastard. This sent me into a bit of introspection. “Are my standards too high,” I thought, “am I not giving movies a fair shake?” I had to think back to the last movie to really “wow” me, and it has been a while.
Then I sat down and watched Pontypool, a high-concept Canadian horror film, and let’s just say it cheered me up.
The film was made back in 2008 and stars Stephen McHattie (and yes, I did think he was Lance Henriksen for the entire movie) and Lisa Houle. McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, an over the hill radio shock-jock who has found himself employed at a small town radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, after his controversial style knocked him out of the big leagues.
Now Mazzy finds himself at constant odds with his producer Sydney, played by Houle, who wants him to “tone things down” for the small-town audiences he is now catering too.
But things get strange when reports start coming in of rioting, strange crowds of babbling people and general mayhem across town, and Mazzy, Sydney and technical assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) find themselves in the middle of an outbreak of a strange, zombie-esque virus.
Now here’s where things get tricky. Sorta like the opposite of my Hugo review, in order to talk about how awesome Pontypool is, I have to spoil the big middle-of-the-movie twist. If this doesn’t bug you, keep on a-readin’, if not then TURN BACK NOW
Ok, so after a truly random encounter with a scientist at the heart of the outbreak (he literally climbs in the window, it’s a tad bizarre) they learn the true nature of the virus. It isn’t transmitted by bodily fluids, bites, scratches, etc. It’s transmitted through language. Through ideas. For whatever reason certain words have become “infected” and by hearing and understanding them, the virus infects you.
As a result, the infected person starts endlessly repeating that word, and any noise or speech they hear (while going on murderous rampages, of course). The mere thought behind this kinda blew my mind. A virus transmitted through language. How damn cool is that?
It’s the kind of inventive, “out there” idea that I just love seeing. If nothing else, you gotta admit it’s original.
Because of the nature of the virus (and that it only works on the English language), French Canadian riot police are brought in and that just opens up a whole ‘nother layer. As anyone living in Canada knows, language is a hot-button issue, especially here in Quebec. The idea of language as an infection would definitely hold more resonance had it been set in Quebec, so as it is, it’s simply a nice aside.
Another thing I really enjoyed is that the movie is very small in scope. The majority of the film takes place in one building, hell in one room. While many other movies would be scrambling to show us the zombie outbreak in full swing, Pontypool takes the bold move of presenting a much more intimate and small-scale side of the outbreak.
The information we’re given about the outbreak is the same information given to the protagonists: voice-only interviews, news reports, the occasional first-hand account, etc. This is a very crucial detail, as it forges a strong connection between the main players and the audience. We’re as confused and as in the dark as they are.
We aren’t looking through the eye of some God-camera that can zip around showing us dramatic shots of the carnage outside, we remain focused on them for almost the entirety of the film. That creates a very intimate connection between the the members of the cast and the audience observing them.
This also means that a lot of the tension and atmosphere doesn’t come from visuals. We do see the “zombies” but not a whole lot. The majority of the tension comes from the performances. This is a movie that leaves a lot to the imagination and still succeeds, and these days that seems damn near impossible, let alone something most filmmakers would even attempt.
Speaking of the cast, it’s basically knockout performances all around. McHattie nails it as the tired, cynical Canadian Cowboy, stifled under the restrictions he’s placed under and clearly walking down a dark road. I just find it hard to believe he doesn’t play more radio hosts, the man has a voice like a sheet of velvet.
The supporting cast are all great, though special attention should be payed to Hrant Alianak as Dr. Mendes (or Dr. Exposition as I like to call him) who takes what could have been a generic eccentric scientist part and injects some comedy into it.
Now, that’s not to say the movie is totally perfect. The only real problem is that there isn’t enough of it. Or rather, there isn’t enough exploration of the cool idea that drives the whole movie. I mean this is cool, creative stuff here, let’s devote some time to just messing around with it and seeing where you can take a concept like this! When the movie ended I was genuinely sad that it was already over, and a tad disappointed that the idea hadn’t been explored further.
I think as complaints go, this qualifies as praising with faint criticism. If my only complaint is that the movie needs to be longer, it definitely says something about the quality of the movie.
Overall, Pontypool is a great treat for lovers of horror movies on the prowl for an original idea. It’s smart, creative and very well acted and put together. Be sure to check this one out!