directed by Bruce McDonald
(IFC, 2008)

Pontypool is a compelling and intelligent horror film that is quite different. It's the best I've come across in terms of really, truly making the viewer feel trapped deep inside implacable chaos, playing around with notions of reality and truth in ways that feel distressingly near to hand. In a post-everything world, this little gem of an underrated horror film is an angry dissertation against a society descending into soulless, mindless media entertainment that is turning people into zombies via sensory overload.

Without spoiling too much, it's this platform that provides the basis of the infection. Pontypool sets the action inside a radio station in the back end of a small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter. Aging, past-his-prime shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is broadcasting out of a church basement. It's a great place for the first act of the intense, claustrophobic story. For a long, almost boring first 10 minutes, Mazzy does his wiseguy shtick for an audience that really only wants to hear whether or not the school are closed. What's a zombie, after all, but something that merely goes through the motions of being alive, a fitting metaphor for Mazzy's empty performance that won't find meaning, or an audience, no matter how hard he tries, because nothing, it seems, responds to any kind of stimulus anymore.

The slide into the second act starts with calls coming into the radio station from people who are under attack from hordes of cannibalistic mobs. Not undead, but ordinary people bewildered, crazed and completely, mindlessly violent. Slowly but surely, people turn faster and faster, cutting off the tiny town from the rest of the world, forming into a bloodthirsty herd that descends inexorably on the radio station.

Not seeing the violence -- at first -- makes for some tension-inducing moments. Not seeing what's happening, hearing about it only in snippets that have to be built into a visual, amplifies the fear to the breaking point. In the final sequence, Mazzy has to figure out if he is part of the solution or part of the problem. How can a radio host in charge of the town's only media outlet use language to resolve the crisis?

Unfortunately, the film does not hold together quite all the way through. Up to the climax it's quite well done, swinging back and forth between tension and (literally) word-of-mouth, piece-by-piece revelation. It's good at being disturbing but it's also preachy and a trifle too unconventional, in the sense that it stretches things too far, drags out certain moments for a hair too long. The performances are more than decent, though, and the concept of words that have the potential to spread insanity is rather contemporary even now. It's a great idea but perhaps a bit too cerebral and trying too hard to be a black satire.

It's nice to see something different than the same story over and over and it is certainly riveting in places, but it's ambition is flawed and the delivery isn't quite enough to maintain the premise as it becomes, regrettably, too clever for its own good.

review by
Mary Harvey

13 December 2014

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