You’ll probably hear that Pontypool is a zombie movie, but that’s not the case. At all. It features people infected with some sort of virus, yes, and the few times they’re onscreen they move more or less according to the now-standard zombie pattern. But the story, in which the viral infection is somehow spread through speech, is more conceptual than most, and more suggestive than graphic. This constrained little shocker is a small story that feels huge, like the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio play transported to the screen.
Stephen McHattie is Grant Mazzy, a semi-drunk, semi-provocative DJ recently appointed to the morning shift at a small regional station in Ponypool, Ontario. He’s got an implied past as a jerk and a shock jock, but Mazzy’s history primarily serves as a bridge into the story. Arriving early for work he flirts with the cute station technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) and spars with his prickly producer Sydney (Lisa Houle).
The morning’s news report takes a strange turn, however, when the stations ‘eye in the sky chopper’ reports a couple of violent events, notably a mob surrounding a doctor’s office. Something strange is brewing in Pontypool. Members of the mob are repeating words and phrases, and degenerating into something less than human. The infection spreads rapidly.
There’s the old joke about having a face for radio, but McHattie has a voice for radio and a face for film. As the camera endlessly prowls around his radio booth, his intense expressions and low vocal tones are captivating. The camera rarely strays from Mazzy as he investigates and reports from the confines of his chair. It’s vaguely like seeing Rear Window’s L.B Jeffries locked in an underground bunker. There’s an inherent staginess to the production — perhaps inevitable when it barely leaves the radio station — and occasionally McHattie’s expressions go too far over the top. When that happens, his voice keeps the movie grounded.
Director Bruce McDonald (Highway 61, Twitch City, The Tracy Fragments) successfully moves the story (adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything) through suspenseful, suggestive horror into media critique, and that hooked me. As Mazzy gets info on the strange occurrences, he has no way to verify what’s going on. But he passes things along with his own theatrical embellishments. Is that making the situation worse? Could the radio broadcast, meant to help people along in the time of crisis, actually be exacerbating the situation?
Things take a bad turn, both within the film and in my appreciation of it, when more details emerge about the problem affecting Pontypool. The story eventually lands in distinctively Cronenbergian territory. There’s a wild concept (and a high concept) behind the madness in Pontypool, and I couldn’t quite buy it. My problem is rooted in an atypical form of suspension of disbelief. I never quite believed that the movie knows exactly what point it’s trying to get across as the English language transforms from signal to noise.
This is McDonald’s direct follow-up to The Tracy Fragments, a movie I respected more than I liked. My response here is the inverse; I like this movie quite a lot, though I’m not sure I fully respect it.
Frequently adventurous and occasionally verging on experimental, McDonald’s filmmaking is nothing like the routine stuff we’ve come to expect from horror. He offers something fun and challenging, something that requires imagination. The story wrestles unsuccessfully with a convoluted concept, but the craft and performances lock Pontypool in as a film that should not remain undiscovered.