Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pontypool (2009)

Every day we are bombarded by people communicating around us. Just think about how prevalent the English language is and how often you hear it every single day. Whether it is through the television, the radio or just stepping outside and hearing people conversing, we are exposed to thousands of spoken words every day. Now, what if the words themselves were infected and speaking certain words could turn people into blood-thirsty, raging lunatics? Think about how easily a virus like that could spread and how easily people could become infected!

And that clever little premise, my fiends, is the basis for the fantastically fun and eerily intelligent horror film Pontypool!

Radio personality Grant Mazzy is known for his confrontational and brash attitude. In fact, he was recently fired from his big-city DJ job and the only work he could find was in the tiny town of Pontypool, Ontario. He isn’t happy about being stuck in the middle of nowhere and having to drive through cold, snowy weather to get to work, but it was the only station that would take him. He begrudgingly arrives at the small radio station one morning and things start off pretty normal – he riles up the locals, argues with his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and has the station assistant, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) spike his early morning coffee. Then, he talks to the station’s “eye in the sky,” Ken (who isn’t really in a helicopter, but in his car driving around) for the weather report. Ken informs him that there is a mob forming around the local doctor’s office…and things go downhill from there. Grant, Laurel Ann and Sydney are holed up in the station when more disturbing reports come in from callers and weatherman Ken. The reports all say that people are making strange noises, speaking gibberish and turning violent, including eating other people. As the mob gets ever closer to the radio station, can the survivors inside figure out what is happening or is it already too late?

Finally! A horror film with an intelligent and original premise! This is exactly the kind of smart horror film I’ve been waiting for and Pontypool definitely delivers! I love how the film plays with something that hasn’t really been explored much in horror films – the English language. Everyone fears biological and chemical weapons, but what if someone developed a virus that spread through our language? Now that’s scary!!

The film was adapted for the screen by Tony Burgess from his story Pontypool Changes Everything. Now, I haven’t read the book, but I imagine Burgess stayed relatively true to his highly original story, which he must be given kudos for because it translates so well to the screen!The story cleverly builds from the initial mystery of what is going on outside the walls of the radio station to the startling revelation that people are acting violent and cannibalistic to the conclusion that the virus is transmitted via words in the English language. Though the story gets the tiniest bit befuddled towards the end (repeated viewings might clear up some of the confusion), I thought that overall it was a smart, unique script.

I was also impressed at the high levels of tension and dread, especially since the film takes place in mostly one claustrophobic location (the radio station) and we hear the carnage as opposed to actually seeing it. Hearing the strange gibberish of the infected as well as the sounds of screaming and violence over the phone really puts your imagination into hyperdrive and I think this was much more effective than just showing the audience explicit gore (though Pontypool does feature a one noteworthy scene that is cringe-worthy!). Again, this shows just how inventive Pontypool is and hearing the horror unfold as opposed to seeing it reminded me of old radio shows that my grandma used to listen to. I was always amazed at how effective those radio shows were at sending cold shivers down my spine, and Pontypool works in much of the same way.

I also liked how the one location of the radio station gave the viewer a sense of claustrophobia, especially when the infected surround the building and it seems like there is no way out. Director Bruce McDonald did a fantastic job at building dread and tension with the isolated and claustrophobic location.

As for the acting, it was phenomenal! Because there is only one location and only a few characters, we must rely on the three actors playing the characters of  Grant, Sydney and Laurel Ann to capture the feelings of their predicament. All three actors were incredibly believable in their roles, from acting incredulous to stunned to afraid. The absolute stand-out performer was Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy. He goes from weary and cynical but brash and incredulous radio DJ to concerned and scared citizen in the blink of an eye. When he realizes that the mob of people isn’t a practical joke or a stunt but truly is dangerous and blood-thirsty, the fear in his eyes is haunting. Lisa Houle as Sydney and Georgina Reilly as Laurel Ann both do a spectacular job as well. They both appear very natural and real in their characters.

Pontypool is an extraordinary film that is as smart as it is entertaining. It has everything going for it, from a strong story, surefire direction to excellent acting. It defies all preconceived genre notions and runs with its unusual storyline. Though Pontypool has some strong similarities to traditional zombie films, I think that comparison sells this highly intelligent film short. Though the infected in this film tend to mob like typical zombies do and eventually eat human flesh, the infected are not reanimated corpses and thus are not traditional zombies. They are something completely different, just as Pontypool is a completely refreshingly unique film.

If you are looking for one of 2009′s most original and intelligent horror films, look no further than Pontypool!

Available from Amazon!

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