Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: Pontypool

There are two Pontypools in the world (that I know of, anyway). One is in Wales and one is in Canada. The movie Pontypool opens on a snowstorm at an ungodly early hour of the morning. Grant Mazzy is on his way to work, and he's having an angry phone conversation with his manager. Mr. Mazzy has recently fallen from grace as a syndicated radio shock jock, and ended up on a small station here, in the middle of nowhere. Fumbling with his phone at a stoplight, Grant is startled when a woman puts her hand on his window and tries to speak with him. It's a unsettling event, and by the time he gets his window down, she has wandered off. He calls to her, and somewhere, in the darkness, she shouts his words back to him.

This is more or less what I imagine Canada to be like all the time.

Mazzy arrives at the radio station, begins his broadcast, and relates his story on air. "What," he asks, "would you folks do? When is it appropriate to call 9-1-1?"

Mazzy's eloquent but confrontational style is a refreshing to his assistant, Laurel-Ann Drummond, but it annoys Sydney Briar, the station manager, who just wants him to read the news and the school closings and give the locals something they can tune out. The morning starts out as a battle of wills until Ken, the station's "reporter in the air" (in quotes because he's actually in a Dodge Dart with helicopter sound effects) calls in that there's some sort of riot forming at Dr. Mendez's office. This is a bewildering development, made worse by the fact that there's no corroboration from any other media.

Little details start leaking in over the next hour or so, and Mazzy believes this is either a hoax or a hazing aimed directly at him. Ken calls back, frantic this time, and it's clear that something very serious is going on. People are being trampled to death, and the military has been called in. The call cuts off. The BBC calls in to get an update for their listeners, but they clearly don't know anything either. Another call is interrupted by a statement in French which cuts into the station's transmission. Laurel-Ann dashes off a translation, which Mazzy reads live-on air: Citizens are asked to stay protected, indoors, and refrain from the use of the English language, especially terms of endearment. The transmission ends with "do not translate this message."

Nobody in the station understands what any of this is about, but they get a firsthand look when Laurel-Ann suddenly becomes fixated on the word missing. Around this time, the aforementioned Dr. Mendez escapes from the mob at his office and makes his way to the radio station. Mendez doesn't really have anything to do with the events, but as a medical doctor he's been able to analyze them. He quickly ushers Sydney into the recording booth with Mazzy--leaving Laurel-Ann in the control room--and explains what he believes is going on. This seems to be a viral outbreak spread through the English language. The virus infects certain words, and infection is contingent on comprehension of the word. They watch as the virus takes hold of Laurel-Ann, and she becomes-- well, conventionally she would be called a zombie, but Bruce McDonald, the director of the movie, says he prefers to call them "conversationalists".

The film was written by Tony Burgess, and is based on his 1995 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which I have not read. My least-favorite coworker tells me that it's pretty good, and that Mazzy's adventures at the radio station are a small subplot of the story proper. I mention this because I watched the movie with a few other people, and the consensus among everyone else is that it was missing something; they wanted to know where the virus came from, or what its purpose was. I don't mind that we never got that information, but then, I tend to be forgiving of low-budget movies, especially when they contain interesting ideas like the language virus.

The idea of the language virus isn't a new thing, however, and Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash features a similar idea (along with cybernetic dogs, pizza delivery by the Mafia, and a hero/protagonist named Hiro Protagonist). Burgess claims to have thought of it independently (and I don't see any reason not to believe that), but a dog-eared copy of Snow Crash makes its way into a couple of shots as a concession.

Anyway, I've said it before, but zombie movies bore me. Sure, there are good ones, but in general the genre rehashes the same couple of ideas over and over, and those ideas tend to be easy to convey on a microbudget; sometimes it seems that every no-name director trying to break into the business does it with a cheap zombie picture. Pontypool sidesteps a lot of the usual pitfalls by giving us an unusual infection vector and realistic characters. Most zombie movies feature a survivalist who quickly takes charge, and at some point toward the end somebody makes a Big Mistake that Dooms Everybody, but none of that happens here. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), makes a better-than-usual zombie movie protagonist by being smart and (mostly) level-headed, but it takes him a very big chunk of the movie to realize that he needs to stop broadcasting. McHattie's performance carries this movie, and it's nice to see him in a bigger role, considering that I've mostly seen him on the edges of movies and TV shows; he plays a lot of dads and rural law enforcement. I see that he also starred in a movie last year called Hellmouth which was also writted by Tony Burgess, so I'm making a note to check it out. Everybody else in the film does a nice job too, particularly Lisa Houle as Sydney Briar. I don't mean to give short shrift to everybody else in the movie, but it really is Grant Mazzy's show.

Bruce McDonald's direction does some very nice work in a very small set with only a handful of actors, and I see from his resume that he probably honed those skills on TV productions. Apparently his original conception for the film was to do it in voiceover with the audio waveform being the only visual, which would have been audacious, but not, in the long run, very interesting. He may not have taken any artistic chances by conceding to the audience's expectations of a standard visual narrative, but I think it was a much wiser choice.

Here's the trailer:

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