Though it’s unfairly playing second fiddle to another, higher profile horror movie also hitting theaters this week, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool offers a classic case study in the genre’s fullest potential. Drenched in atmospheric malaise, it functions on the base visceral level mandatory for any such effort. At the same time, the screenplay by Tony Burgess (based on his novel “Pontypool Changes Everything”) unashamedly stabs at sweeping social relevance with a narrative that condemns the bastardization of the English language that’s a regular feature of our twittered, instant messaged lives and the media fed bombast that enables it.
The great, criminally underappreciated Stephen McHattie stars as Grant Mazzy, a cowboy hat affixed shock jock who has tumbled from the heights of his profession to its dregs: hosting a morning show in a small, bleak Ontario town. Joining him at work are his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and a new assistant named Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly). In the pitch black early hours of a regular day, with a snowstorm swirling outside, they begin their broadcast. Things progress normally until intrepid reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) reports a mass disturbance outside a doctor’s office. From there, events spiral out of control and it quickly dawns on our heroic threesome that something transformative has begun happening to the world beyond the studio doors.
It’s hard to adequately review this movie without discussing, in depth, the significance of its secrets. In so doing, more than one review has cited William S. Burroughs’ famous notion of language as “a virus from outer space.” Without revealing too much it can be confidently said that few axioms more aptly fit a story that turns on the notion of a communal malignancy spread by the spoken word. The conundrum at the core of Pontypool, born out of this concept, makes it such an unsettling experience.
Set entirely within the radio station, which occupies a church basement, with minimal camera movement and multiple long takes, the film essentially functions as a radio play (ala Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds) from which the words are progressively siphoned out. All Grant Mazzy has is his ability to talk through things, to reason with people, to provide the sort of calming presence that so often emanates from those in his position. The screenplay offers him pages of dialogue in the opening stages. But he grows progressively quieter and the film becomes more about what’s left unsaid between him, his colleagues and the Pontypool community and the tension generated by the mysterious discordant sounds engulfing the studio in person and through the airwaves. McDonald starts moving inward, increasing the sense of disorientation with a series of stark, lingering close-ups held on McHattie and Houle, as they react to the terrifying specter of an indiscernible catastrophe lingering just outside the front door, ready to descend on them at any time.
Pontypool is, in other words, a film that wrings its terror not from gruesome imagery or sudden visual jolts but through a smart psychological rendering of our universal fear of the unknown. It demonstrates rare levels of insight into the human psyche, particularly regarding the unexpected, instinctive reactions that characterize our response to major traumas. As if that were not enough, it takes as its central metaphor a contemporarily relevant concept full of meaning and ripe for debate. With the aid of Burgess’s thoughtful screenwriting, as well as the careful use of enhanced sound design and classical, deliberate camera techniques McDonald has made a zombie movie that feels every bit as real as the best of Romero.
Yet, ultimately the performances make Pontypool the affecting experience it is. McHattie, a veteran character actor finally getting a great lead role, sheds away the layers of Grant’s ego and self-righteousness to reveal an ordinary man every bit as terrified by the circumstances as he should be. The terror he feels as he realizes he’s stuck in a situation he can’t escape is palpably felt in McHattie’s tormented face, in the petrified stillness that overtakes him as he descends into silence. The best thing to be said about Pontypool is that it retains that intrinsic humanity even as McDonald and Burgess hurl their protagonists into a perfect storm of chaotic confusion and unending dread.