This is an interesting film on several levels. Despite being an adaptation of his novel by author Tony Burgess, it comes across like a stage-play – mostly confined to a single set, a handful of characters, lots of dialogue – and this alone sets it apart from the slew of recent zombie/ plague films littering the online shelves of DVD outlet companies.
What makes the film even more interesting, and worthy of our attention, is the fact that it isn’t a regular zombie film at all. There’s much more going on here than a virus turning people into walking-dead flesh eaters. It’s a more intelligent film than most of its ilk, and its origins as a novel show through here and there where the film gets caught up in ideas rather than action set-pieces.
Set in the small Canadian titular town, Pontypool features Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) as the local radio station’s big-name shock jock signing. Down on his luck and stuck in a job he feels is beneath him, Mazzy seems to prefer spending his time annoying his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and flirting with his sound girl Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly),
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whilst guzzling whisky and generally doing what he thinks he’s been brought in for – to stir up a storm on the airwaves.
But a real storm has arrived in the shape of previously normal people rioting in the streets and babbling incoherently as they destroy public buildings and attack bystanders. The news filters in slowly, through the roving weatherman’s truncated reports and snippets heard on the police band radio. Mazzy suddenly decides that it isn’t really his job to snap at callers and create controversy after all; he rediscovers meaning in his role as a professional communicator, and decides to report the story that’s coming together before his ears. Then, as even the radio station comes under siege by those suffering from a weird word virus, Mazzy and his producer try to help whatever survivors might remain out there, listening to the show and desperate for help.
The big twist here, of course, is that the killer virus is carried by language. I’m giving nothing away by mentioning this in my review, as the information can be garnered from the publicity blurb accompanying the DVD and is also revealed quite early on in proceedings. It’s a neat twist – original and intelligent and all the more welcome for these reasons. The premise put me in mind of the work of J.G. Ballard or even William Burroughs, and the stark setting in the radio station is the perfect environment for the story, forcing us to focus on the characters and the increasingly bizarre dialogue.
Negative points include the fact that near the final stages of the film the action tries and fails to expand the intimate, indoors atmosphere of the rest of the film, and a couple of awkward splatter scenes feel tacked-on just to please the audience. All this aside, though, it’s a very good film that dares to attempt something different with a currently in-vogue horror formula.
McHattie carries the film: his presence is immense, and he dominates every scene (and he’s in them all) with a performance that is both flawless and effortless. He’s the kind of actor you simply enjoy watching, and he puts all his screen experience to good use to produce a truly memorable character. Although not the cutting-edge masterpiece a lot of other critics are claiming it to be, Pontypool is dark, bristling with a fierce intellect, and riffs beautifully on its central idea with an energy and panache that manages to make a lot of other films of this type look shallow and bland.
The shitty screener disc I was sent managed to maul the ending, so I was forced to try it on three different DVD players before I could resume my viewing. This possibly led to the ending feeling a little weak and rushed – I’m willing to be charitable here, because the rest of the film was so intense – but a continually sticking disc and pixillating image didn’t mar my enjoyment too much. This is a very good little film, with something important to say about the way we communicate. Just don’t repeat the message out loud; because we might all get infected by the words you speak.