Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Written by: Tony Burgess
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly
Although there is no shortage of filmmaking talent in Canada, it’s almost expected that any successful Canadian actors and directors will eventually fly south in pursuit of Hollywood aspirations. Director Bruce McDonald, however, is an anomale. Despite receiving critical acclaim for some of his early films like Dance Me Outside and Hard Core Logo, he has maintained a base of operations in Toronto for a good twenty years, preferring to remain a permanent fixture of Canada’s cultural landscape rather than chasing down fame and fortune.
Perhaps part of the reason why he has remained north of the border is the fact that his sensibilities are much more attuned to the art house than the mainstream. Big studio movies don’t really suit McDonald, and probably don’t interest him much either. Most recently he directed rising star Ellen Page in an experimental drama called The Tracey Fragments, but with Pontypool, McDonald turns his attention for the first time to the horror genre (well, second time, if you count his high school Super-8 film Our Glorious Dead). Although some of the marketing might have you believe this is a straightforward zombie flick, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Based on the book Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, the story takes place in the small Southern Ontario town of Pontypool (near Peterborough) where DJ Grant Mazzy is about to start his day, getting up early in the morning and driving through the snow to reach the little radio station where he works. Little does he know, he is about to come face to face with a deadly plague that is taking over the town — what’s more, he might actually be the one spreading it. After witnessing some examples of strange behaviour and erratic speech, he starts to receive calls from people around town who are in the midst of violent hordes of zombies. Eventually the horde descends on the radio station, leaving Mazzy and his small on-air crew trapped inside and fighting for their lives.
The movie works on a lot of different levels, and operates as both a horror movie and an interesting mindbender of a sci-fi flick with some heady stuff to say about social interactions and human communication. In typical Bruce McDonald fashion, there are plenty of surreal moments where you are questioning the reliability of what you are seeing as a viewer, but there are also genuine moments of terror. The movie takes a bit of time to get going, and during the early stages of the infection while reports are coming in from outside the radio station the movie almost takes on the quality of a radio drama. It is here that the impressive sound design work of Steve Munro really shines, creating a chilling atmosphere that hints at something gone awry without necessarily hitting you over the head. In some ways it is almost disappointing to see the movie eventually go for a more visceral approach, but gore hounds will be pleased to note that there is more to Pontypool than merely a “boogeyman of the mind”, if you will.
The acting is solid (which sadly, cannot always be said of Canadian productions), and both Stephen McHattie (who, incidentally, also plays the older Nite Owl in Watchmen) and Lisa Houle carrying the majority of the movie through tricky waters. This is especially important in these earlier stages of the game where their reactions are used to play off the sounds to create even more suspense. This is also crucial to handling some of the film’s odd tonal shifts, which must be maneuvered with care. Partway through the film, a doctor (Hrant Alianak) seeks refuge in the radio station, and starts trying to explain what he knows about the virus in rather puzzling terms. It is at this point that the movie becomes quite funny and almost self-aware, although it also becomes a bit frustrating and painfully obscure. By the time the characters discover that blundering through conversations in rudimentary French might help save them, the movie will have either won you over or completely lost you.
If the movie has one major weakness it is that it is limited in both budget and scope. Although McDonald and the cast manage to turn this into a strength in a lot of ways (by relying on a single claustrophobic environment, for example), there are so many interesting ideas at work that the movie almost demands to be taken further and deeper. Word on the street is that McDonald and Burgess hope to turn Pontypool into a trilogy, so hopefully this will help rectify the issue.
Ultimately, Pontypool is a cerebral horror movie that defies expectations and will likely leave some viewers confused and unsatisfied. If you’re just looking for the next torture porn flick, or some good ol’ zombie carnage, you might want to give it a pass. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of the earlier works of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, you just might be in the right frame of mind to receive these transmissions. If this is the case, Pontypool is one virus that you’ll be more than happy to infect yourself with. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: 28 Days Later, Videodrome, Cube, The Ring