Monday, October 7, 2013

Shocktober Review Revisited: Pontypool

For some reason, since 28 Days Later, it's been fashionable to identify movies about infected masses as "zombie" films, even if the infected maniacs aren't actually dead. As long as they move in herds, lack specific individual identity, and every now and then might engage in cannibalism, it means they must be zombies, so the argument goes. I tend to stick to the "living dead" argument, particularly in cases like 28 Days Later and today's film, Pontypool.

While Pontypool might not actually classify as a "zombie" movie (and since the DVD cover boasts "one of the 25 best zombie movies ever," I feel like that's how it's being characterized), it is a well made, tense horror film reminiscent of The Crazies, Prince of Darkness, and The Signal. And from where the Cap'n is sitting, that's a pretty good pedigree to remind one of.

Pontypool is a small town in Ontario where former shock jock turned local radio news host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself. Snowed in, bored, and broadcasting out of a church basement, Mazzy has only producer Sydney Brier (Lisa Houle) and tech assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) to keep him company (and on task), with the occasional call-in from Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), the "eye in the sky" at CLSY, the "Beacon." During a blizzard, Grant, Mazzy, and Laurel-Ann find themselves inundated with phone calls about strange activity in town, tied in some way to Dr. Mendez (Hrank Alianak). When it becomes clear that the virus spreading outside is attached to the English language, Mazzy desperately tries to find a cure while fending off the infected masses.

Director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess (who adapted Pontypool from his own novel) make a wise decision early on, one that likely benefited a low budget: once Mazzy arrives at CLSY, the film never leaves the radio station. Most of the contact with the outside world in the first half of the film is limited to phone calls from eyewitnesses, police, and one oddly placed call from a BBC affiliate that provides otherwise unavailable exposition. Even in the second half of the film, when Dr. Mendez arrives - followed by a crowd of infected townspeople - McDonald keeps the scope limited to two or three people per scene.

Pontypool manages to create a sense of claustrophobia with a relatively large setting (the church, which is only identified as such once, is somewhere between the size of the radio station in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and the cathedral in Prince of Darkness). The camera is rarely static early in the film, keeping dialogue heavy scenes from losing momentum, and McDonald often chooses tight closeups or composition that favors a crowded mise-en-scene.

Beyond the technical aspects, Burgess' script presents a novel solution to "where did the disease come from" question, and slowly doles out information organically, as the characters process what's happening around them. The concept of a disease that spreads through language - specifically through one infected word, one that varies from person to person, and only takes hold when they understand the word - feels fresh enough that if it's been done before (and one could argue that The Signal certainly inches in that direction, as would Stephen King's Cell), the film doesn't suffer for it. In fact, it's Pontypool's greatest strength, as it takes John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness to its logical conclusion - language as a virus - and makes the most of plot device and setting.

The film plays with an insistence that only English is infected, although it's not explored as much as one would expect. On the other hand, Pontypool is so successful in slowly depicting a world collapsing outside the "Beacon" that I was willing to overlook less developed aspects of the story. McHattie, Houle, and Reilly have to carry the film mostly through reactions, but they sell the growing chaos so well that you don't mind never seeing the outside world. The cast is largely people I didn't recognize (save for a cameo by ubiquitous character actor Boyd Banks, who appeared in Land of the Dead and The Fountain), and it adds to the story's ability to draw you in without attachment.

Stick around during the credits, both for continued radio broadcasts that tie up the story, and for a truly odd coda, the less spoiled the better for you. Pontypool comes highly recommended for horror fans, and even if the cannibalistic infected aren't technically "zombies," it's certainly a fine film in its own right.

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