Guest Film Review – Pontypool

By Guest Columnist Steven Sheehan, writer for FilmScope:

The horror scene finds itself in a similar situation to that of the late ’90s, where the originality factor was low and far too many repetitive stories were hitting the screens, making the outlook for the ’00s look pretty grim. Far too many serial killers had flattened the audience’s interest in spending their money at the cinema, and it took films like The Blair Witch Project and 28 Days Later to offer a new alternative, where the film’s power surprisingly came from its realism. Alongside the rise and fall of torture porn, the zombie subgenre has powered on full steam ahead, and whether it is ’80s parodies or serious attempts like the TV show The Walking Dead, a dead end is fast approaching. Pontypool quietly arrived on the scene a few years ago and offered a fresh approach, and whilst obviously restricted by its smaller budget, like all good films, it maximized the effect due to that very reason.

Pontypool succeeds because of the two central performances of Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, the DJ and producer respectively at a radio station in the small snow-leaden Canadian town Pontypool. Grant Mazzy (McHattie) is cast toward the outskirts to keep his radio career alive after blowing his last big gig in the city, his smooth natural style on air exuding his confidence, and his frustration at the lack of real news bringing him into conflict with producer Sydney (Houle). So it’s just another slow morning in town, with Sydney’s assistant working quietly beside her and their man in the “sunshine chopper” Ken Loney (actually sitting on a hill using chopper sound effects) completing the team.

McHattie is exactly the type of cool elder statesmen you would’ve expected to roll in as the cool and wise badass in a Tarantino flick; you may recognize him from films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History Of Violence. He is given a great character to take on and doesn’t let the script down, as the camera needs his presence throughout in order for this to really work, given the single location it takes place in. Before going in, you know this is a zombie flick, yet 30 minutes pass and you begin to wonder exactly how that is going to be angled in, as director Bruce McDonald drags you into the slow ticking time bomb of their day.

A seemingly small story about the local police failing their duty is called in, and Mazzy can’t wait to get his mouth round the details and out onto the air. Not too long after, Loney is calling in another story, this time about a mob charging into the local surgery of Dr. Mendez and literally tearing the walls down. Things begin to get frenetic, but the team in the studio can’t get a handle of what exactly is going on out in town, with Mazzy almost salivating at the opportunity to sneer his rabble rousing rhetoric. The BBC call in looking to confirm that the town has been sealed off by the military, whilst Ken Loney’s phone calls into the studio are increasingly filled with craziness, making the walls of the studio feel tighter than ever.

It’s all very Hitchcock in tone, a quiet almost unbearable tension taking over a studio relying purely on phone calls and mixed messages, implying what is happening outside their four walls. So it becomes a horror of the worst kind, as the imagination takes over and offers no boundaries on the kind of terror consuming the town’s population. Still we have no exact idea what it is, so Mazzy and Sydney bounce off each other, knowing they have to depend on their newfound bond to make any sense of their isolation, which is intensified further when assistant Laurel-Ann becomes “infected.” Dr Mendez, on the run since the destruction of his surgery, breaks into their studio and the three of them are stuck almost motionless in the DJ booth.

To let you in on the reason for the madness would ruin the very smart idea employed to turn these people into zombies, so let’s just say that it is relative to the building they are in. The problem is that because of its unique nature, it is a very tricky “disease” to deploy with complete consistency without precise care given to the script, ensuring the audience can keep up. When we hit the last quarter of the film, it loses some of the edge as the zombie element takes over, dropping the tension levels, and the relationship between Mazzy and Sydney becomes overcomplicated.

Nonetheless, it’s a tight, compact film to be enjoyed, and McHattie deserves further praise for his ability to act merely with his eyes in certain moments, demonstrating the skill of a man well versed in his trade. Movie heroes will come and go as the years tick by, but charisma is a rare, instinctive ingredient that many of the “greats” will never aspire to. Whilst far from perfect, Pontypool has an opinion worth investigating and its original ideals will eventually encompass the change of direction the horror genre will be forced to embark upon, to discover a new chapter.

Final Grade: B+