starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly
screenplay by Tony Burgess, based on his novel Pontypool Changes Everything
directed by Bruce McDonald
by Jefferson Robbins Few things give me the willies like the sublimation of self. The idea that my essential me-ness could someday drain away and be lost--to injury, dementia, what have you--makes me shudder. At the extreme, there's the fear that some invading force, a me supplanted by a not-me, might subjugate my personality. Little wonder that Brian O'Blivion's monologue in Videodrome about communicating with his own brain cancer, or almost any mind-control scenario scripted for comics by Grant Morrison, can set me cringing.
Usurpation of the self is one facet of the zombie genre, which expresses a fear not merely of horrible death but of being subverted into death's instrument.1 Zombies aren't horrifying just because they want to eat us, but because they didn't, until some predatory hive/herd mentality took hold of them. 28 Days Later... and its ilk prove that there's not a lot to be done to make movie zombification scarier, other than to tamper with the plague's vectors (radiation? toxic spill? bodily fluids?) and effects (are you a fast zombie or a slow one? Walking dead or mutated warm body? Killing because you're hungry or homicidally pissed off?).
Bruce McDonald's Pontypool looses a zombie virus on the language itself, as a morning-radio crew in the tiny, titular Ontario burg is besieged by babbling townsfolk, stuck on internal tape loops. Desperate for linguistic input, the infected hunt anyone uninfected2; the radio station, where grizzled host Grant Mazzy (the brilliant Stephen McHattie) and his small production crew (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) help Pontypool talk to itself, becomes both a lifeboat and a buffet. Once Pontypool shoves its characters into this classic rattrap, it refrains from jump-scares and easy shocks, instead letting its core idea coagulate in your mind. It's that rare contemporary horror film that would work as a stage play, and it builds its house out of dread rather than panic. McDonald's camera is leisurely even when contemplating bloodshed. In the movie's most terrifying moment, we're basically alone in the sound booth with Mazzy while his field reporter phones in the dying gurgles of a viral victim. The real scare lies in watching Mazzy come unglued, and in realizing that the infected man's final words were really, in all likelihood, those of his last victim.
Pontypool's central conceit is intriguing to any student of memetics and semiotics. It's a play on disease as communicable, get it? And it's scary as fuck: imagine your vocabulary itself afflicted by sickness, diminishing to a word salad with only one or two ingredients, and all you can do is listen to it go. As it happens, I recall an episode from one of those horror anthology shows--"Tales From the Darkside"? A revived "Twilight Zone"?--that likewise involved a linguistic insanity plague, unleashed by a man who'd discovered the meaning of life and drove people batshit by explaining it. It, too, came to a head in a small radio station, and the story worked equally well, maybe better, in the short format. Damned if I can pin down the series or episode title3--the point is, this is not the first time I've encountered this concept.
Sorry if that takes some of the wind out of the creators' sails. It shouldn't. Pontypool manages to represent all the necessary genre elements (the plague, the love story, the man of science, the oppressive military response) in the tiny box where its characters live and die. With impressive acting and atmospheric design, it gives our heroes real lives and a sense of place, and it argues that media can be a cure for social disorders in addition to a cause or symptom.
Pontypool garnered fans on the festival circuit before this Canadian DVD edition from Maple appeared, and the package seems aware of its following. The dynamics of the film industry are such that people now set out to produce and market "cult" films and hope that the audience, which used to decide for itself which flicks won that appellation, nods along. The movie's fish-belly colour palette carries the same chill as an Ontario winter, and there's no noise to detract from the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. (Pontypool was shot with the popular Red One HD camera.) Crucial to a movie about mutagenic language, the Dolby 5.1 audio throws the ambient sound and creep-out noises to the rear channels and gives McHattie's rich radio voice the subwoofer bandwidth it deserves. The disc offers no subtitle option in any language, something of a surprise but perhaps an artistic choice. Even odder, for a Canadian release, there's no French dub.
On a feature-length commentary track, director McDonald (Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) yields the floor almost entirely to screenwriter Tony Burgess, who authored the source novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, as well. From the sound of it, they're tired of talking about this film, so McDonald calls a script meeting for the second part of a proposed trilogy. Two-thirds of their yakker consists of developments and plot points for a movie we haven't seen yet--which may be interesting to devotees, but get back to me when Part Two comes out. I kind of resent the filmmakers doing that on my time, though I get the feeling this team, the loquacious Burgess in particular, enjoys tweaking their admirers. The table-read drifts off by the third act, and we're back onto a more scene-specific commentary, albeit one short on production insights. Moreover, a poor soundmix or miking job means that Pontypool itself drowns out parts of the filmmakers' exchange. Burgess conceived his novel, by all accounts a vastly different animal, upon passing a highway sign for Pontypool and taking a shine to a name that includes "typo" within it. The creators admit they were going for an unreliable-narrator vibe, hinting that the events of the film are fantasy, but as finalized we have no reason to believe that Mazzy and co. aren't truly under threat. I do like the decision to refrain from explaining the epidemic's cause: in horror and SF movies, McDonald says, "You look forward to the explanation, but then you're like, oh, is that all?"
Also on board is a CBC radio play version of the film that hews so close to the movie its dialogue could come straight from the ADR sessions. Performed by the same cast, the play is accompanied by a slideshow of production photos by Caitlin Cronenberg, daughter of David--a very nice twist on the typical DVD collection of stills. Pontypool has the same cringe factor as many of the senior Cronenberg's shockers, but it lacks the talking tumors and bodily transformations that at one time might have drawn the maestro to direct.
Lastly, we have a pair of black-and-white shorts by Britt Randle that play like disturbing and worthy homages to the best-known silents of Buñuel and Murnau, Lang and Cocteau. In Dada Dum (2007), a dreamer explores a great portrait-lined chamber, while Eve (2002) recasts the Genesis creation myth in giddy Frankensteinian terms, with God's breath of life taking the form of a Lynchian gas mask. They're fine abstract films featuring impressive scores by Devin Sarno and main performances by Caroline Niklas-Gordon; I just wish I knew what they were doing here. Originally published: May 12, 2010.
1. Conversely, we could say a lot here about how the forged-from-the-dead Creature's desire for selfhood informs the Frankenstein story. return
2. Why do zombies herd up? Why don't zombies eat each other? If zombies eat or rend into gobbets every living human they catch, shouldn't there be a lot fewer zombies? It's possible I think too much about these things. return