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Reviews from the Edge: Pontypool

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IFC Films

Greetings from the Edge!

This week, we’ll be dipping back into the black illimitable depths of horror cinema with Pontypool, a Canadian production and an interesting take on the zombie/infected sub-genre. Will the host and operators of a small Canadian radio station be able to survive the outbreak of an unknown disorder that causes its victims to begin repeating the sounds and words of those around them before flying into a berserk frenzy? The last time I took a look at Canadian horror we got the excellent Gate… and the not so excellent Gate II. Let’s see where Pontypool falls on our Canuxploitation meter, here on the Edge!

Starring Stephen McHattie playing grizzled and disgruntled radio host Grant Mazzy, Lisa Houle as station manager and divorced mother Sydney Briar, Georgina Reilly as sound engineer and returning veteran Laurel-Ann Drummond, and Hrant Alianak as local physician ( although under something of a cloud ) Dr. Mendez.

Pontypool opens with a recording from a local radio station about a missing cat ( which becomes relevant later if you make the language connection between the name of the cat and the Pontypool incident ) and snow, lots and lots of snow. After the title, the snow shifts into a view of Grant Mazzy driving through the almost blizzard conditions and having an argument with his agent. After firing his agent, Mazzy pulls over to answer his cell phone and an incoherent woman comes out of the snowstorm and pounds on his window before beginning to repeat his every word and drifting back into the storm.

After making his way to the small radio station serving Pontypool, Mazzy, his engineer, Laurel-Ann Drummond, and station manager Sydney Briar begin receiving strange reports of incidents throughout the town. Riots, murders, and inexplicable behavior as the town becomes ever more cut off from the rest of the world.

Will the staff of this local radio station be able to divine what is going on, survive it, and perhaps help the rest of the world understand what is actually happening in the small Canadian town of Pontypool before it spreads out and consumes the world?

I have to wonder if Mazzy’s “Don’t Talk” message is for the theatre patron as much as his companions. Is it wrong that I imagine that Canadian movie goers are just more polite than those here in the U.S.? (image courtesy of IFC Films)

Hmm, this is where I normally talk about the effects in a picture and there are some good effects in Pontypool. Especially those around the infected in Pontypool called “Conversationalists.” However, there really aren’t that many and, I have to be honest, I didn’t miss them. The suspense was held so well and the storytelling so on point that it really engaged my imagination.

This may be the exception that proves the rule “Show, don’t Tell.” Pontypool respects your intelligence enough that it doesn’t hand hold you. It trusts that you’ll pick up on the plot threads that are presented without slapping you in the face with them.

I couldn’t help but think of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in reverse. What if, instead of a radio hoax, the apocalypse started with only a few people left to try and disseminate information through a tiny radio station in the basement of a church?

The radio station of Pontypool, Canada, the setting for our story. Oh, and a bunch of clueless Canux in Arab face. Lawrence and the Arabians? What the Hell, Canada! (image courtesy of IFC Films)

One of the things that fascinates me about Pontypool is that it’s almost a horror stage play. The main characters never really leave the radio station, most of the action is reported rather than seen, and, while the tension and scares are real, Pontypool isn’t filled with explosions, gunfire, or over the top violence. The story is carried by the superb acting talents of the cast and the excellent visual and audio work of the director and crew. It even manages to get in a few good laughs without breaking the mood or descending into parody. It all feels very real and immediate, an inexplicable disaster destroying everything and the people trying to not only survive but to understand.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that might hurt it in the eyes of some horror fans. The lack of direct action may turn some off. For me, the pacing was excellent, but Pontypool is definitely not a Resident Evil or Romero rip off. Having said that, it really has the same sense of immediacy that made the original Night of the Living Dead such a spectacular film.

Pontypool feels more like Hitchcock than Rami. Y’know, scratch that, it actually feels like Hitchcock telling a Rami story while being directed by Orson Welles in his radio days. If that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what will.

Georgina Reilly seen here playing Laurel-Ann Drummond, sound engineer and ketchup enthusiast! (image courtesy of IFC Films)

Pontypool is stylistic, well acted, and intriguing. A breath of fresh air in the stagnant zombie/infected genre. In fact, I don’t think I’m overselling it to say that it really transcends that genre all together. I highly recommend Pontypool to all genre fans, give it a try, but know what it is going in. It won’t dazzle you with special effects or make you jump out of your seat with boo scares or epic explosions, but it doesn’t need them.

Even if you’re not a traditional horror fan, I’d recommend giving Pontypool a try. If you like suspense or hard science fiction, Pontypool should be right up your alley, and if you’re in the mood for something different, something a little harder to define, maybe Pontypool will pleasantly surprise you.

Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!

Ah, so much cool background detail. Pontypool really holds up to multiple viewings.

The idea of a mimetic virus passed on through language and understanding is pretty great and Pontypool even gives a shout out to Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson that had a similar concept.

Was it just me or later in the film, were there hints that the BBC presenter was starting to manifest symptoms of the Pontypool virus? Wow, if that’s the case, everyone better hope that Mazzy and Houle’s message got out. Because the spread of the Pontypool phenomenon would cut through the English speaking population of the world like a firestorm. In fact, the way that the French Canadian military forces started to repeat the broadcast phrase at the end doesn’t bode well for the rest of the world, either.

Boyd Banks of Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead ( the remake ), and Diary of the Dead fame makes a guest appearance as “Osama Bin Laden” in a really inappropriate local Canadian singing group that shows up at the radio station.

Apparently the BBC did a 58 minute radio play version of Pontypool that I just have to track down. I’m going to have to listen to it in the dark with some headphones while alone. Because I’m a masochist about these things. Of course, the fact I’ll be hearing it during a Texas heatwave instead of a blizzard will probably ruin the verisimilitude a bit. I guess I could go sit in an icehouse, but that might be a little eccentric even for me. Also, this is Texas and I don’t want to get shot, so there’s that.

Oh and I loved the film noir inspired after credits sequence, I really wasn’t expecting that.

Join me next week for another plunge into the world of moving pictures, of light, sound, and imagination. Great, Terrible, and everything in between, you can see it all from the Edge!

About Author

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Justin T. Williams hails from the Great state of Texas. His life has been a series of strange adventures that makes for intriguing writing but difficult laundry. Justin is known to his friends as a lifetime fan of comics, movies, and classic pulps. He lurks far from the sun, indulging in his favorite pastimes of writing and hoarding random bits of interesting but useless knowledge.