“Pontypool” Changes Everything

Posted: February 15, 2010 in movies
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"Pontypool" Movie Poster

Zombie flicks. You either love ’em or you don’t. I certainly love ’em, and so do plenty of other folks, if the recent box-office success of movies like “Zombieland” and the “Resident Evil” series are any indication. But the best and most groundbreaking of the bunch in recent years has flown somewhat under the radar.

2008’s “Pontypool,” from visionary Canadian director Bruce McDonald (best known for his distinctly north-of-the-border-flavored road movies “Roadkill,” “Highway 61” and “Hard Core Logo”) is a distinctively atmospheric, oftentimes downright scary entry into the zombie canon that has the potential to redefine the entire genre in the same way that George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” did back in 1968 and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did over 30 years later. But first, enough people have to see it, because great art that exists in a vacuum is still great art, to be sure, but if it enters into the public consciousness, by word of mouth or other means,  even if we’re just talking about on the level of horror and more specifically zombie genre fans, then it has the power to be transformational. And if there’s one thing “Pontypool” does — and does very well — it’s to take the zombie movie in a bold new direction by opening up some seriously new and (therefore naturally) previously-unexplored territory for a genre that many folks feel has become a bit shopworn in recent years.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — in many respects, McDonald’s film is very much a traditional  low-budget walking-corpse story. The principal cast of characters is very small. The action, such as there is, take place in an enclosed location with our protagonists under siege from the spreading undead infection that surrounds them (essentially Romero’s stock-in-trade scenario for his first three “Dead” films). And (again like Romero) the zombie plague, and the reaction of the surviving humans to it, serve, at their core,  as  stand-ins  for the filmmaker to cast light on certain contemporary sociopolitical issues.

So what, then, can truly be said to be so new about “Pontypool”?

That’s where reviewing this film gets tricky. Because you can’t give away what’s new and different and altogether revitalizing (how’s that for an ironic choice of words when talking about a walking-dead movie?) about this film without giving away some major plot points and therefore trashing the element of surprise for any potential viewers that might be out there. Suffice to say that I’ll offer just a couple of clues : in one scene a copy of Neal Stephenson’s cult classic science fiction novel “Snow Crash” can be seen lying on a desk, and it’s no accident that I chose to open this review by saying that I hope strong word-of-mouth buzz among horror fans will get this film wider attention. And I’ll say no more than that.

Writer  Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” has really hit on a novel approach for how the zombification virus is spread here that utterly redefines both how one can become a zombie, and what it means to even be one. Yes, of course, it’s still transmitted from one carrier to the next, but that’s where any similarity to the living dead of old ends.  Because with “Pontypool,” all notions of how it’s spread, and for that matter why (the implications — and that’s all they are, implications — of who might be ultimately responsible for the origins of this particular plague are truly chilling) are completely blown out the window.

Radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy (veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie, best known to American and international audiences as Hollis Mason, the first Night Owl, in “Watchmen”) has gotten himself sacked from his (unspecified) major-market gig over a Don Imus-type brouhaha (again, the specifics are unspecified) and has found work in the only place he can, as the morning show host for an AM station that broadcasts out of a church in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario ( I looked it up and it’s a real place). How much of a comedown is this for our guy Grant? Well, the “eye in the sky” traffic commute reporter in Pontypool phones in his reports from his car that’s parked on top of the biggest hill in town and plays helicopter sound effects in the background, and the biggest local news story is an old woman’s missing cat (the name of which will have significance later).

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy

With Grant in the studio are his producer, Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life wife, actress Lisa Houle), and his technician, a recently-returned Afghan war vet  named  Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). That’s about it for the main cast of characters, apart from the town doctor who plays a part later.

What begins as a day not unlike any other quickly turns strange, however, when Grant begins to get phoned-in reports about a mob of crazed people converging on said town doctor’s office. Then more reports start to come in about large groups of people acting strangely and attacking random folks in the city, in the woods, and on the highways. Some of the reports, such as one about a car carrying a family being literally buried under a herd — that term is used specifically — of people are so bizarre (and so much more effective when heard and not seen —  showing anything like that on this film’s budget would have resulted in yet another cheap CGI spectacle, and we’ve had more than enough of those in more than enough other movies) that Grant and his cohorts don’t know whether or not they’re being played for fools in some sort of massive, town-wide hoax. When an in-studio guest starts behaving strangely, though, they know something’s up.

Soon the BBC is calling. More and more truly unbelievable reports are coming in. And it’s soon quite obvious that this cold and snowy late-winter morning has brought something entirely new and dreadful to the sleepy hamlet of Pontypool. When one of their own, Laurel-Ann, begins to transform, all pretense (or hope) that it might be some sick and elaborate joke is gone.

Laurel-Ann's had better days

When the full-scale zombie siege of the studio finally begins in earnest, our protagonists are still trying to figure out, on the fly, how it can possibly be stopped, so flabbergasted ( and, for that matter, only partially informed)  are they as to the nature of the infection and it’s mode of transmission.  It’s pretty damn tough to figure out how to stop something if you barely understand how it works and find it hard to believe what little you do know.

Throughout the film, the claustrophobic studio setting and incredibly small cast of characters really works in terms of presenting the us-vs.-them, inside world-vs.-outside world, “bunker mentality” sense of atmospherics so essential to this story’s success. Sure, it’s indicative of a very tight budget, but it’s also indicative of how said tight budget can really be harnessed to the story’s advantage. Less is indeed more.

And speaking of less and more, now would be the time to point out that gorehounds are sure to be disappointed here. The level of blood and guts on display is pretty damn low, but that only makes it all the more shocking and disturbing when the violence really does start to hit home. Have no fear, though — even though the gross FX quotient here is pretty low,what few there  are really are  quite effectively staged and presented. That being said, though, the majority of the horror is “Pontypool” is psychological, and in the best horror tradition, what’s not shown is much scarier than what is, allowing the viewer to imagine in his or her own mind the unfolding terror taking place outside the studio walls — and threatening, of course, to get in.

A major hit at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, “Pontypool” nonetheless received scant theatrical distribution. It played some in Canada and on a small handful of  art-house screens in major US markets and got some play at various horror conventions and independent film festivals, but that was about it.

Now, the good folks at IFC (Independent Film Channel), which handled the distribution rights, have hit us with a one-two “Pontypool” punch : it’s just been released on DVD, and is also playing on IFC On Demand on cable TV. The DVD looks and sounds great, with crisp, clear 16:9 letterboxed picture (as if it wouldn’t, it’s essentially a brand new film) and top-notch 5.1 Surround sound mix. A commentary track featuring McDonald and Burgess is included (the good news from it — they’re planning two sequels!), there’s a selection of independent Canadian short films, the theatrical trailer is thrown in, and best of all there’s also the full-length original CBC radio drama (presented along with corresponding  stills from the film to make it easier to follow the audio action) that McDonald and Burgess developed before the full movie project was green-lighted.

They want in!

“Pontypool” isn’t just the best zombie film of the year (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved “Zombieland,” although it’s technically true that this was a 2008 production and that was 2009), it’s the best zombie film in many years. Entertainment Weekly has already declared it one of the 25 best of all time in the genre. And while I’m usually not one to agree with any statement found in any gossipy Hollywood rag, much less one that features a regular column by Diablo Cody, in this case they’re absolutely right. Hell, I’d go so far as to say it’s top 10 material.

So see it already.

Oh, and spread the word — it’s the only thematically appropriate response. That’s as close to a hint as I dare to get.

Comments
  1. kidmiracleshitter says:

    Great review, you touched upon quite a few things I didn’t know about. I very much enjoyed Pontypool and will be posting about it soon.

  2. […] that Pontypool succeeds where The Ring fails: it really does demand to be shared, clamors for some word-of-mouth buzz. Watch. Listen. […]

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