ICYMI – HALLOWEEN EDITION: Pontypool (2008)
As I have mentioned previously, my wife’s work on zombie films has opened me up to an entire genre of worthy films with plenty of international flair. From Shaun of the Dead (Great Britain) to Train to Busan (South Korea) to Dead Snow (Norway) to Juan of the Dead (Cuba), zombie films attract talented filmmakers worldwide and transcend cinematic borders. And while not every tale of hordes of the undead wreaking havoc is bingeworthy, the universal truth is that zombies are fun, frightening, and timeless.
And to this world tour of zombie entertainment I would include 2008’s Pontypool courtesy of Canada. This highly inventive hybrid finds a way to meld Talk Radio with Night of the Living Dead with The Thing. Leave it to some talented minds from north of the border to give us bloodthirsty swarms set off by the English language. Stay tuned…
The eerie, isolated feel is established from the opening shots, with Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) driving to his latest DJ shift in the pre-dawn morning of a developing snowstorm. After an argument with his agent, he gets an ominous jolt at his car window from a passerby. She mutters “blood” repeatedly before staggering away. Grant wonders if she was real.
Once he arrives at the station, he falls into the usual pre-show banter with his long-suffering producer, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and eager engineer, Laurel (Georgina Reilly). The film quickly establishes the air of small-town radio, with all of its idiosyncrasies and repetitive nature. After Grant ruffles some feathers with some diva-like behavior, proceedings settle down into an average morning.
Slowly, things start to feel askew. The longtime callers are not chiming in this AM. News of an uncanny hostage situation is shrugged off as drunken behavior. Soon, an unruly crowd assembles outside the offices of a controversial doctor, along with a head-scratching military presence. We are in the audience are just as befuddled and curious as this skeleton radio crew.
Normalcy seems to return with a live performance from a local theatre troupe, promoting an apparent Lawrence of Arabia musical. At song’s end, one of teenage players seems to have a breakdown signified by muttering to themselves. This is followed by more erratic reports of emerging, random violence and a remote correspondent who eventual melts down and is disconnected. What seems to start off as a modern-day version of Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” slowly dissolves into a tense and emotionally packed horror film with the carnage seeping into the desolate workplace.
Pontypool makes the most out of its witty concept thanks to Tony Burgess’ finely tuned screenplay (based on his own novel) and Bruce McDonald’s taut direction. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “dead air.” The film is sharply paced with more than a few shudders and surprises. I especially enjoyed the sequence where the government tries to relay an emergency message in French, only to have Grant read it word for word with the final warning “do not translate this message.”
The idea of mere language turning your average citizen into blood thirsty killing machines may seem inane or non-sensical, but it’s brought to life with a modicum of belief needing to be suspended. Of course, nowadays anyone witnessing a Trump rally would agree we are not THAT far off.
Longtime character actor Stephen McHattie makes the best of a rare starring role. He is probably best known for playing Captain Healy in the long-running Jesse Stone TV film series, but here he is front and center as a showy, self-promoter who loves the sound of his own voice. Watching that tool turn into a weapon is eye-opening to say the least. Lisa Houle is every bit his match as the producer who is trying to manage both Grant’s ego and the ever-escalating situation. The film builds to an inevitable conclusion where containment outweighs hope. We even get a trippy credits scene that may either connote survival or a gateway into the next life.
Not sure how much of Pontypool’s wit and ingenuity comes from its Canadian origins. The thought of an American remake makes me sick to my stomach. To every overly ambitious American filmmaker too lazy to develop an original idea I say, “Leave Canada alone!”