It’s true, you know. You’ve probably have never seen Pontypool and, in this, you’ve failed yourself. Okay, that’s probably a bit much, but if you even have the smallest inclination towards the horror genre, you owe it to yourself to check this flick out.
In essence, Pontypool, is a scaled down version of the Tower of Babel. Not in a literal sense, mind you, but on a sub-textual level. It’s about superficial forms of communication, and how if we can’t understand each other, and even ourselves, we fall apart and become hostile to those around us. All notions of progress stops immediately in the face of misunderstanding the evolution of language. Even our common tongues change. Words and definitions shift to meet the demands of the now, as with each generation new ideas and concepts spring up and, in an effort to understand these things, we maintain a vocabulary, we just make it malleable.The effect of this is usually cause for a generational dissonance, of sorts. Older people often being left out in the cold, when it comes to conversation.
It’s about how speech can be dangerous, as rhetoric can turn large groups of people into violent mobs. Even the most insulated among us, whether insulation is through ignorance or purpose, can’t stop it from getting in at some point. We’ll have to communicate at eventually, if only to find a way to survive. You can’t stop language, whether you can understand it or not, but it’s still going to effect you.
Now, to be clear, that’s a lofty interpretation of the film. Yeah, all that stuff is in there and, on repeat viewings, can enrich the experience, but you could enjoy this film on a surface level, too.
It’s basically a zombie-esque thriller, about a virus that spreads through spoken words. It’s a familiar scenario with a twist, as almost the entirety of the movie takes place inside of a small radio station in a small Canadian town, Pontypool. Most of the characters aren’t even seen, they’re just voices that call-in, and as the film plays out we slowly learn about what’s going on outside. To say anything more would spoil the fun, so I’ll leave the synopsis and analysis there.
It’s all done incredibly well, as the mystery slowly unfolds through disparate pieces of information. It kind of has a War of the Worlds, the original 1938 radio play, feel to it all. Imagine if they had made a movie about what it was like to be in the news room during that story, and I think you can paint a pretty clear picture of how Pontypool is structured. They also produced a radio play version of the story simultaneously with the movie, featuring the same actors, and presents the entirety of the story as a morning show broadcast.
The movie expands on the proceedings by giving further depth to the characters, as it shows us the behind the scenes going-ons of the radio broadcast. We see the characters struggle with whether or not they should stay on air, whether they should try to escape or not, etc. None of it is plot critical, but the added character texture is welcome, and helps in gaining our sympathies, beyond just the circumstances they find themselves in. It also allows in a little bit of levity through how the characters react to the situation.
With a film this small and specific, it would all be for not if the performances didn’t hold up. Thankfully, they do. The real stand out, the MVP of the movie, is definitely character actor, Stephen McHattie, as the crotchety, disillusioned shock jock, Grant Mazzy. He’s always been one of those “Oh, I know that guy” type of actors. He shows up all over the place, always putting in solid work, but rarely is he given the opportunity to be the lead. Pontypool makes a compelling case for the opposite. He gives the character a real life, and we know exactly what kind of a guy he is, from the way he carries himself, his dry sense of humor, and his humanity. He feels well rounded, and tangible. You’ve met this guy, you’ve heard him on the radio. It all makes it feel legit, and is the key to the film’s success. Seriously, I could listen to McHattie read the phone book.
The dialogue and the performances are incredibly important, but the way it’s shot is no slouch, and given that the whole movie takes place in about three rooms, it makes it all the more impressive. It’s constantly pushing in, close and intimate, creating a sense of claustrophobia. I was really impressed by the amount of set-ups that were done. It’s essentially a play, and could be easily filmed in long wide shots, but the cinematography never rests on it’s laurels, and effectively heightens the drama. It really puts us in the small confined spaces with the characters.
Pontypool is a low budget genre flick, that puts a unique spin on a familiar yarn, and it’s one of my all time favorites. I watch it once or twice a year and it’s always been compelling. It’s simple and straightforward, but has enough interesting sub-text to keep you engaged. It’s a true original, and in the “zombie genre” it’s something that’s all too rare. It relies on ideas and mystery, rather than on cheap scares and visceral thrills.
Apparently, there’s a pair of sequels in the works. Director, Bruce McDonald, and writer, Tony Burgess, have been trying to get them funded for years to no avail. Here’s hoping it comes about at some point, as I’d love to see the concept explored further. But until then, I’ll gladly keep watching the original, and maybe even check out the original novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, as well. Although, Burgess wrote and adapted the story for all the various iterations out there, so it may not hold much more, but you never know. I like to read!