Friday, March 13, 2009


Horror films rarely interest me. They generally aren’t scary, and rarely do they offer even a glimmer of originality. Of course, this only means that when a horror movie is scary and original it becomes a breath of fresh air like few others can. The “zombie” genre seems to provide the most room for inventiveness, even though the premise itself is extremely one-note. Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead work within the confines of the “zombie movie” to offer great social satire, new and effective thrills, and even deep emotional investment. Another film can now be added to that list: Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool.

Pontypool takes place in the town of the same name in Southern Ontario. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has recently started working as the host of the morning news show at the town’s local radio station. It’s implied that Grant was fired or let go from most of his other, bigger hosting gigs at bigger stations. After getting a hint of his abrasive personality and on-air antics it’s quite clear why he appears so worn and down on his luck.

It’s Valentines Day and Grant arrives at work, and within minutes is already getting on the nerves of his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and warming to the young Afghanistan veteran and technical assistant, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly.)

Nearly the entirety of the film takes place inside the radio station and limited to the three characters, as well as the traffic reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) over the phone. The film quietly builds up the characters and the dark, but dryly hurmourous tone for the first 10 or 15 minutes, at which point everything begins to descend into hell. An ambiguously frightening call from Ken, describing horrific events involving rioting, explosions and hints of cannibalism, is the catalyst for horror.

The film’s first two acts deal mostly with the three characters in the radio station attempting to get a grasp on the situation happening in the town right outside their doors. Live phone call after live phone call serve to expand the scope of the terror. Chanting and babbling people, and phone interviews with the BBC inquiring about the possible involvement of separatist French-Canadian military forces, make the puzzling events outside seem ever more frantic, difficult to piece together, and hysteric.

McDonald’s choice to limit his location to one, and his characters to only three or four at a time, is inspired. In the dark radio station the horror of not knowing or understanding the events outside transforms into an unbelievably intense feeling of claustrophobia.

It’s all elevated to the nth degree by Stephen McHattie and his extraordinary voice. He is cool and his voice is deep and soothing, but he uses these qualities to disturb the peace. His voice isn’t scary, but its calmness and is extremely unsettling when pared with the terrible events unfolding. At a certain point it starts to become apparent to Grant that it may be him and his talking that is causing the carnage. Whether this is true is never quite cleared up, but that doesn’t matter. McHattie’s face when the realization dawns on him is both heartbreaking and terrifying. His acting carries the entire film, and even its slight missteps are overcome by McHattie’s bravura performance.

Those missteps are few, but they mostly occur in the final act. A new character is introduced to act as both comic relief and exposition. The character doesn’t fit in with the tone of the movie up to that point and tends to be more distracting than anything else. Because of this fault, the film’s ability to sell the cause of the apparent viral outbreak in the town is limited. It simply becomes more difficult to take the high-concept explanation seriously. Luckily McHattie is there to sell it however much he can.

When Pontypool is over the experience is difficult to let go. The film ends up being an exercise in tense, claustrophobic storytelling, as well as offering an ambiguous premise to decipher and some interesting themes on the nature of language for the audience to chew on during the drive home. The way McDonald allows most of the horror to take place off screen only increases the effectiveness. When you can’t see what is going on every sounds and every single image becomes intense and frightening. Pontypool turns the zombie film on its ear just as 28 Days Later did several years ago. It is a great horror film in an era populated by terrible slasher film remakes, and if you take any sort of liking to good horror then I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

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