Shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has been kicked off the airwaves and now works at a small-town morning show. Another mundane day on the job quickly turns deadly when reports pile in of people developing strange speech patterns and evoking brutal acts of violence. Before long, Mazzy discovers that the behavior is actually a deadly virus being spread through language. Does he stay on the air in hopes of being rescued or is he providing the virus with its ultimate leap over the airwaves and into the world?
Pontypool. The title alone made me roll my eyes and move on to other, presumably better, things. I hate to be superficial, but when you watch as many movies as I do, you have to filter somehow. And, when faced with the title ‘Pontypool’ versus… let’s say… ‘Zombie Strippers’, the choice is easy. (for the record, I have not seen and don’t ever plan on seeing the latter )
Turns out that Pontypool is the name of the small Ontario town this story takes place in. Mercifully, the film begins with a slightly confusing voice-over which explains the title; they got it out of the way, and audiences were able to just move on with the film, unhindered by thoughts of “W-t-f is a Pontypool?” )
The majority of the film takes place in the town’s radio station. The first character we encounter is the host, a big city radio jockey who has fallen from grace and is restarting his career. While he is still unfamiliar with the ways of the tightly knit town’s populace, he seems to have already befriended the station tech, Laurel-Ann – a veteran of Afghanistan (or is it Iraq?).
His relationship with the station manager isn’t as friendly, however. There is a certain exasperation in Sydney’s attempts to keep Mazzy on track, in preventing him from returning to his old shock jock habits. While Lisa Houle tends to be unconvincing in these moments, the tension is palpable and nonetheless credible. And I felt for both of them.
The air is cleared, however, the moment that they start getting weird reports from callers.
Suddenly, things start to spiral slowly out of control, from quaint small-town trivialities to inexplicable attacks on many of the town’s citizens; information starts coming in that there are uncontrollable mobs rampaging about and that it is spreading like wildfire. Trapped in the station, our three protagonists have no idea what is going on and what to do.
And then the danger comes to them, stuck in this small underground station with their only true window to the outside world being their phone and internet connections. Not only can they not get out, but no one can help them.
Pontypool. It’s clever. It does so much with so little and manages to create a spooky tone with nothing but dialogue and just a few actors (oh sure, we see a few secondary characters and hear a few more on the air, but they’re all blips on the radar in the end). This is indicative of a strong story and solid characterizations – both due to the script and the actors’ performances.
In fact, I quite liked the cast – but mostly Stephen McHattie and Georgina Reilly (who play the host and techie, respectively), with whom I was enamored. At first I associated McHattie’s grizzled character to Kris Kristopherson, but it’s very clear now that he is more like Lance Henrickson (and apparently he regularly gets mistaken as him – and has played his twin on TV! ). While he’s an unlikeable character, McHattie makes him so three-dimensional it’s hard not to empathize with him.
Lisa Houle, who plays Sydney, started off really shaky. However, she got into a groove after her character is left alone with Mazzy (I’m not going to explain how, why or for how long they’re alone… that would be one spoiler too many ;). From that point onward I found her much more credible. I’ve subsequently discovered that the two actors have been married for years, so that may account for the change – there was a complicity that came to life when no one was else was around.
The film is rife with so many memorably spine-tingling moments: a little girl who suddenly zones out and starts acting strangely, a main character who becomes a serious threat (thereby trapping the others inside a claustrophobic booth), the utterly bizarre exchanges with on-air witnesses, …etc. While some scares were admittedly done with more low-brow “jumps and bumps”, they were mostly done by stringing little moments together, by creating a psychological build-up of terror.
However, the film changes tone almost completely mid-stream: whereas it was a creepy chiller at first, slowly building up in intensity, it suddenly becomes a more active horror thriller. The moment a new character was introduced into the mix (I’m trying to not give too much away here…), it just got a little more frenetic. As well, around that point, a socio-political flavour that had been simmering was hyped up dramatically – giving a new dimension to the film.
You read me correctly: there is a socio-political message that resonates from this piece. There is no doubt about it. The big question is whether it was the filmmakers’ intention, if it’s simply a sign of our times and/or if I’m just adding my own skew to it – much like everyone does with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (Romero insists that he never intended to inject political commentary in the film). Either way, there is unmistakably a statement being made about censorship, media responsibility and the promulgation of so-called “dangerous” ideas.
Are the filmmakers trying to say that ideas aren’t dangerous? That all the fuss people are making over talk radio and free speech and so forth is meaningless – that it all goes away in the end? That they’re just words to which we’ve attached ideas, but that the words themselves hold no actual meaning? Or are they warning us about the dangers of being reckless with our words, that they have power on a subconscious level and that they can spread like disease? It’s hard to say, but I’d venture a guess that their position is the former (let’s just say that I’m looking forward to the audio commentary to find out 😉
Spoiler alert: I even loved the ending. I liked that the story takes us to the edge of a Hollywood ending but leaves us hanging with the possibility that all went wrong. We may never truly know what happened and that’s just fine with me – the filmmakers built ‘Pontypool’ to a crescendo and never let us down. That’s so rare. And, to me, that’s marvellous.
Despite all the reverence, there were a few elements that knock the film down from a solid 8.5 to an 8.25:
There is a sequence where, suddenly, the radio host started listing off all of the victims and the pattern of the attacks. How did he get this list, isolated as they were? Anyway, it would take days if not weeks to figure all that stuff out! And how did the producer hurt her hand? Out of nowhere, within seconds of the aforementioned “list” issue, she was getting her hand bandaged – and neither or my friend noticed what led to this. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt as though a scene was missing right before these two odd bits. However, the DVD doesn’t have any deleted scenes…
As well, the explanation for the strange behaviour and attacks was completely spaced-out – and, thus, difficult to accept. But I took it for granted that, when the mysterious doctor espoused his theory, it wasn’t necessarily fact – but only an idea that came to him in the moment (he was still trying to sort it all out himself). To me, it didn’t mean that this was the official explanation. And quite frankly, I’d rather not think that it is, because it’s a concept that’s a bit too abstract and difficult to swallow. That would be somewhat disappointing, even if it’s original.
Finally, I’m sorry to have to say this, but I don’t think the film would have had the same poignancy it did without the surround activity. The ambiance that the music created was essential to building up and sustaining the mood of the piece. They mostly subdued compositions, but I sincerely believe that the film would have played extremely differently if it had been relegated to stereo – there’s just something to being immersed in it. Whether that’s a tribute to the composer, a minor weakness of the script and/or a great directorial choice, is debatable.
But that’s all I can gripe about. In the end, this was a terrific film on so many levels. I especially love that it has the strength to start a discussion afterwards; I’m planning on watching this one again with other friends and spreading the good word. I’m very curious to know what others will think of it. And, even moreso, I want to see what kind of comments its core concept will inspire.
Admittedly, a likely part of the appeal for me was that I’ve done community radio, so watching these three people work their magic in a small-town radio station was a lot of fun for me. It reminded me of a lot of things and there was a certain nuanced veracity in the performances that may not be noticeable to someone who is unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes of radio.
However, having said this, it’s still accessible to any viewer who wants a spookshow that will also make them think along the way. I certainly recommend it.