FIRST LOOK: PONTYPOOL (by Adam Barnick) 6/09

DJ Grant Mazzy once made a good living off provoking the populace with his choices of words. This confrontational Canadian shock jock is first seen driving to work in the dark and blinding snow, berating his agent. He has a brief, surreal encounter with a woman who may or may not need help roadside, but she runs off before he can understand her.. then it’s off to his source of discontent; in the basement of a church lies Grant’s demotion and his tomb; the morning drive show at a station in the miniscule Canadian suburb Pontypool, Ontario.

Now reduced to generic school-closing announcements and riffing off the ‘traffic copter’ (a co-worker parked on a hill proudly looping his sound effects tapes), Grant slogs through his days with shots of bourbon in his coffee and just itching to stir the sleepy small-towners’ pots. He’s not going down without at least a bit of rabble-rousing, to the admiration of his tech support/fan Laurel (Georgina Reilly) and the frustration of producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle).

A welcome change of pace comes from a vague report about a hostage situation which seems quickly resolved. Soon after there’s a call about a riot at a doctor’s office. Then another report about a group attack on strangers. None of which seems to show up on police band traffic or the internet. The station is temporarily hacked with a transmission in French warning people to ‘not use terms of endearment with loved ones and not to translate this message into English’, causing even more confusion (with Grant subsequently translating.) Soon the calls get more and more extreme, quarantine is apparently declared and the crew notices this aggression/confusion surfacing in themselves: There is indeed a virus spreading amongst the townsfolk, causing the type of mob dynamics genre fans have welcomed in Romero’s Dead films or 28 Days later. Uniquely enough, the virus seems to be embedded in human speech. Words or phrases are somehow tainted, and driving people off the deep end and Grant’s radio station may be key in its spread, or its dispersal.

Director Bruce MacDonald, long-standing director of quirky Canadian cinema takes a stab at horror and largely comes up aces, as a one-set drama morphs into what’s often a deeply frightening experience. Considering the first thing most would do in a crisis is try to talk to your loved ones, the idea this may be sealing their fate is even more nerve-wracking.

Audiences today are so cinema-savvy that the average special effect is immediately picked apart.. but this is a film where sound trumps picture, and the filmmakers fully exploit the tension produced in the mind’s eye, from panicked bystanders desperate to be heard to bizarre guttural sounds coming from ‘the infected.’ Genre fans more reliant on image do get a few nasty payoffs, watching one character’s extremely disturbing transformation/breakdown (using this reviewer’s fear of the uncanny for surreal, cold-sweat effect).

The mere mention of mindlessly enraged people endlessly spouting phrases they’ve heard again and again without their proper context or understanding immediately calls everything to mind from religion to political slogans to embracing idiotic pop culture dialogue. With these ‘blind followers’ whoever shouts the loudest, probably leads as desperate hungry masses gather at the station doors desperate to chew on any words they can get.

We only get the data our main characters do, desperately listening for clues- and we may end up as infected and nonsensical as the callers are. Pontypool turns out to be a genre hopscotch; while wearing its satire/social commentary front and center, the horror’s interspersed with absurdist comedy (local theater troupes using the radio to promote themselves and exasperate Grant show up in full costume) to surreal vignettes (alternately touching and confusing onscreen images of the dead representing obituaries), to flat out brain-twisting(most of the third act in which a potential cure is tried out).

Those who crave cerebral horror or any new variation on the “zombie” genre will have plenty to munch on here. And for nearly an hour it keeps effectively building, in what is its own beast but feels like Talk Radio interspersed with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play that caused panic in the 1930’s.

The main trio of actors are top-notch. Stephen McHattie, a character actor you’ve seen in everything (most recently the first criminal killed in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and the original Nite Owl in Watchmen) gets a front-and-center role worthy of his gifts, as Grant’s cynical rockstar charisma first keeps us hanging on his words and then worried he may have had a helping hand in exacerbating the trouble- but McHattie remains magnetic. Same with Georgina Reilly’s pleasant appeal which only highlights the despair at her negative character arc; McHattie’s real-life wife Lisa Houle is naturally a fine match as Sydney, alternating between admiration and tension; I’d have been happy to watch these three interact even without the film’s crisis.

It’s unfortunate the tension dies a bit with the introduction of a new character, hinted at early in the film’s exposition; credibility is broken with this character even appearing at the station when the building is supposedly surrounded by infected hordes, and his bizarre performance can’t hold a candle to the trio. It adds little to the main characters understanding the problem. Is that the point?

Pontypool doesn’t quite recover from this misstep, though the final act remains intriguing and as appealingly whacked-out as the town’s brain-fried inhabitants. Said ending suggests the solution to the problem may be in DISunderstanding the meaning behind language and perhaps reinventing it...and takes a few amusing digs at the West (only English seems to be poisoned) though I feel it will keep about half of the audience, and frustrate the other half.

We’re in a world where it’s too easy to make each other crazy just from what should be bridging the gaps between us. Finding a horror movie that can take this on without preaching and still deliver subtle, spooky goods is a rare treat. Not perfect, but definitely give it a shot if you want branier, suggestive offbeat horror.

Pontypool is now in limited theatrical release and available on Video on Demand from IFC. DVD release is planned for later this summer.



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