Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts
(IFC Films; US theatrical: 29 May 2009 (Limited release); 2008)
Language is a virus. William Burroughs made that sentiment popular, and post-modern cultural has made it Gospel. We thrive on the communicable nature of words, drink in their poisonous purpose and pray that more people find your disease desirable - and more importantly, repeatable. Idiom infects us. Jingoism germinates and turns gangrenous within us. More so than at any other time in our civil lives, the message is purely the medium, the statement the status of how we irrevocably view the world. Now imagine a world where such viral verbalization is literally true - where what you say could turn someone from human to homicidal. That’s the basis for Bruce McDonald’s fascinating horror thriller Pontypool. While some may see it as a far too metaphysical monster movie, others will see - and more importantly, hear - the defining difference.
Disgraced shock jock Grant Mazzy finds himself exiled in the small Canadian town of Pontypool, a place where the most important news story of the day is a little old lady’s lost cat. Working with producers Laura Ann and Sydney, he tries to put on the best morning show possible while working within the confines of local special interests and rural concerns. On this particular winter’s day, traffic reporter Ken Loney creates quite a panic with his story of a riot at a doctor’s clinic. Soon, major news outlets are asking Grant if reports of government roadblocks and quarantine are true. Slowly, the situation starts to dawn on these isolated individuals. Something is turning the population into raving, insane killers - and they are headed to the radio station. Later, the trio learns an uncomfortable truth: their broadcast may be the reason for all the mob violence…not the signal, no. The actual words being spoken.
Pontypool is a sinister symphony told in three distinct and very diverse macabre movements. The first resembles a radio play, a War of the Worlds circa 2008 with actor Stephen McHattie stepping into the Orson Welles role as wisecracking DJ Grant Mazzy. Starting out his broadcast with a typical bravado born out of decades of “taking no prisoners”, the opening 15 minutes are more a primer on insular radio realities than a standard fright flick. Soon, we start to hear snippets of a supposed attack, facts so scarce that, several times, our hero’s producers pull the tall tale from the air. It’s all setup smoke and mirrors - is Grant making a media mountain out of a local journalist’s jive? Or is he missing the opportunity of a lifetime by mocking the invisible mob scene playing out over the speakers?
The second part offers up the typical living dead dimensions - reports of cannibalism and killing, victims trapped by the angry and uncontrollable throng, an eventual raid on the radio station - and it is here where director McDonald (with ample help from screenwriter Tony Burgess) introduces the real dread. The “zombies” in Pontypool are unlike any others you’ve seen before. They are not really undead creatures. They are, instead, bewildered people, chanting an individually unique mantra that makes them confused, crazy, and highly dangerous. We never really see the violence they symbolize - we just hear about the risk of same. Indeed, McDonald uses the main theme of words and their meaning to amplify the fear. The suspense here doesn’t come from what we witness, but from the unknown threat that is only spoken of in broken, hushed tones.
Yet it is the final sequence of Pontypool which is the most intriguing, a linguistically dense dissertation on the meaning of language and why we “understand” what we do. As part of the narrative, Grant determines that certain words trigger the homicidal urges within the populace. He believes that by undoing their typical interpretation, he can “cure” the ongoing plague. As the military uses a far more destructive means of dealing with the situation, Grant honestly believes he can ‘talk’ his way out of what appears to be the end of the world. One of the more beautiful things about this film is the desire on the part of McDonald and Burgess to keep the true essence of the danger at arms length. Just when we think we have a handle on how normal rural folk are turning into vicious, angry killers, the concept gets lost in a kind of logical gobbledygook which makes the situation all the more unsettling.
Indeed, there is a certain subtext to Pontypool which suggests that nothing we hear, nothing we know, is really the “truth”. Even the eyewitness reports from Ken Loney are suspect, and not because the ‘eye in the sky’ helicopter ace is actually driving around town in a broken down car, not a high tech flying machine. No, the core theme here is that we take so much of what the media offers us at face value that we tend not to use the common sense given to us to see the factual forest for the tabloid trees. Grant initially reacts badly to the mixed messages he’s given on the crisis. “I have to see it” he shouts, walking out of the booth and towards the exit in an attempt to be his own spectator. With the slightest confirmation, however, he goes full bore into panic mode, required by the rest of the film to tone down the rhetoric and come up with some plan of action.
Don’t get the wrong impression, though. Pontypool is still a very visceral horror film. There is a singular sequence where someone we know turns into a fiend, and her final bleed-out is shocking in its biological brutality. Similarly, there are false scares and intentional shocks in abundance. McDonald gets great performances out of McHattie and his wife, Lisa Houle (as a stunned Sydney). The singular setting may remind some of a stage play, and Pontypool often exposes its low budget roots in such a small in scope manner. But the material works much better within such a microcosm. It makes the messages and symbolism all the more potent. Indeed, this is the kind of film that reminds you of the typical 24 hours news response when something happens. The initial reaction of Grant and the crew sounds like the ill-prepared comeback to a growing crisis, the kind of guesswork and speculation that comes from people never, ever challenged in this manner.
In fact, it’s easy to see Pontypool as a direct response to the kind of post-9/11 predilection toward alarm and then retraction, of falsification for the sake of ratings. Grant clearly wants back in the big time. When we first see him, he is arguing with his agent over the realities of radio in this backwater Canadian burg. Later, when the publicity light goes on in his head, he’s all seriousness and sonorous tones. And yet, no real “news” is getting out. Instead, it’s all incomplete and conjecture - and there is nothing more frightening than realizing a threat exists, and not really knowing what it is. While most horror films spell out their scares in specific, genre terms, this is one time where the terror is vague, and as a result, all the more disquieting. Pontypool may not be everyone’s cup of creature feature tea, but this is one smart, heady brew - intoxicating, and all too telling.