Why “Pontypool” didn’t become a huge cult hit during its initial theatrical release is beyond me.
It got good reviews from critics who know what they’re talking about (Noel Murray, Kim Newman, Mark Kermode and David Edelstein, to name a few). It made a good run on the festival circuit, playing at both SXSW and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (where I saw it) in 2009–festivals with a track record of highlighting world-class independent cinema.
Bruce McDonald, the director, may not be a household name in the U.S., but some of his films, like “Highway 61,” “Hardcore Logo” and “The Tracey Fragments” have decent cult followings, as does “Twitch City,” the Canadian TV show he directed and produced in the late 90s. There were a lot of elements that could have made for a come-from-behind success story.
But, for whatever reason, this creative, smart and surprisingly artsy horror movie didn’t get much more than a very limited cinema release, followed by its DVD release in January this year. The good thing about this is that now the movie, about a town laid low by a strange virus spread through the English language, is more widely available to people who haven’t yet had the chance to see it. My hope is that, through word of mouth, audiences will finally give “Pontypool” the attention it deserves.
If you’ve only seen the trailers, “Pontypool” would seem like your average zombie movie. There’s a virus, there are mobs of infected people attacking the main characters, and our heroes are holed up somewhere trying to survive. But it’s not. In fact, the movie has more in common with Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast than it does with “Night of the Living Dead.” (It was originally adapted as a radio play from the novel “Pontypool Changes Everything” and later made into a screenplay.)
It relies a lot on atmosphere and surprisingly little on visual scares. In a genre that tends to produce more movies like “Hostel” than ones like “Psycho,” that’s a pretty big risk to take, but it really pays off. Despite a notable lack of blood, guts or creepy-crawlies, “Pontypool” manages to deliver heavily in the creepy department.
From the very first second of the movie, it’s obvious that something different is going on. Out of a black screen, a thin electric blue sound wave pops up, accompanied by lead actor Stephen McHattie’s distinct, deep (and, the first time you hear it, pretty eerie) voice. He starts a rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue about an old woman in town who’s lost her cat. Now, as someone who does a lot of work in radio, this was pretty much all that had to happen for me to be totally hooked. But, in the larger sense of things, this odd bit of narration pretty much sets a catalyst for the rest of the movie. It’s unexpected, artsy and pretty damn cool.
The story is that of a small regional radio station in Pontypool, a teeny little burg in Canada, and the radio host (McHattie), producer (Lisa Houle) and production assistant (Georgina Reilly) trapped there as a strange infection spreads throughout the town, sparked by an unidentifiable meme. The townspeople don’t turn into zombies, exactly, but something akin to slower, more vocal versions of the infection victims in “28 Days Later.” They repeat themselves, imitate voices, form mobs, and turn vicious. We don’t see a lot of these poor infected folks during the course of the film, but we do hear them, either over radio broadcasts or from outside the station.
All the scenes take place in the dimly-lit radio station, and most of the shots rely on McHattie’s highly expressive face, which can go from world-weary to confused to fearful over the course of about 30 seconds. McHattie is really the movie’s strongest draw. He’s simultaneously edgy and bitter, but completely accepting of himself. He projects an air of confidence that’s practically magnetic. Plus, he’s got an awesome radio voice.
As an audience, we only know as much as the characters do, and get the information at the same rate and from the same places they do. There is no back story, there is no explanation. We are without a guide, which means just about anything can happen. It’s a pretty great feeling, and one that McDonald executes well as a director.
That’s not to say that “Pontypool” is a perfect movie. That general lack of explanation, while it adds to the film’s mysterious air, is also the movie’s weak point. A local physician (Hrant Alianak) shows up towards the end. He claims to have some idea of what’s causing the sickness, but the character mainly just makes things more confusing. Grant, too, thinks he’s figured out how to save everyone, but his reasoning is never fully explained either, so his actions become a little hard to follow. This makes the ending seem a little jumbled, but everything ends with such a jolt (I’m not giving it away) that it almost doesn’t matter.
“Pontypool” has an awful lot going for it. It’s technically well made, well acted, creepy, funny, and weird. It’s the kind of movie that, if it’s seen in the right place and right time, can really have an effect on you. It did for me when I saw it in Edinburgh, and for the friends I saw it with. When we get together now, it’s hard for us to have a conversation in which the movie isn’t referenced at least once.
A few weeks ago, I got a bunch of people together to watch “Pontypool,” to try and show them why I couldn’t stop talking about it. Two people told me that they were so creeped out by the movie that they had problems sleeping that night. Really, when you think about it, that’s the highest form of praise a horror movie can get.