Welcome back to Friday Nightmares Reviews, wherein I let you know about something you could be watching instead of surfing the internet. Because social media becomes tedious after a while, no?
Tonight, I have something a bit different for you all. Something that I hadn’t really intended to review initially but seeing as I am noticing a lack of much talk about it, I feel like it fits the bill for what I like to spotlight here. Also, it’s my website and I can do whatever I want so there’s that too. Tonight’s feature is the 2008 sleeper horror film, Pontypool, and it’s a bit of a departure from my usual to say the least. This movie was based on the book Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, which I have not read yet but from what I could find online sounds like it’s a bit on the cerebral side, edging more into the side of literary fiction. This movie has the distinction of being not only the first one I’ve reviewed so far that has actual literature attached to it (the prestige!) but also the only one that has been categorized as being an Art House film. So, you know, a bit of a step away from a late in series shitty sequel or direct to video vanity project. Like the last film, this one is Canadian and was made on a very tight budget but it goes to show the skill of the filmmakers this time around as neither of those things prevented them from making one of the most original “zombie” films you’ll ever see. I’ll get into why I’m calling them “zombies” in a bit but first, let’s talk about the plot.
We open with a monologue delivered by one of our main characters, Grant Mazzy, played to perfection by Stephen McHattie. Mazzy is a radio DJ with a bit of a shock jock edge to him, whose mouth has landed him working at a tiny radio station in the bowels of nowhere in snowy Ontario. Along with him are his boss, Sydney, and their younger military vet turned technician, Laurel Ann. The three start off Valentines Day as a normal day with Mazzy trying to push people’s buttons and Syd passive aggressively trying to reign him in. During the morning broadcast, they get some tips and eyewitness accounts of something odd happening in the town of Pontypool. Their man in the “sunshine chopper” for the station (who is actually just riding around in town in his truck, playing helicopter noises) starts to report on the happenings when suddenly things turn violent and their feed is interrupted. Everyone who calls in is trying to tell them more but continually gets cut off. Before long, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong but there’s nothing to confirm what’s really happening, so the radio station plays on. During a very awkward guest performance (which is admittedly a bit on the uncomfortable side, even though it is the filmmakers making a statement about western impressions of the middle east), we get our first look at the virus in action. One of the children performing starts to act funny and continues to repeat a word like she’s confused. The performers are ushered off and forgotten about as the tension begins to mount. After they are given a particularly chilling update by their man in the field, Mazzy decides that he’s had enough and begins to lose his shit at everyone. His tantrum and attempt to leave the building are cut short by the station coming to the attention of the infected masses as they converge on them. When one of their own falls victim to the virus, the characters that are left discover the horrible truth about how the plague is spreading. It isn’t by biting or blood but rather by the language they are speaking.
If this description doesn’t tip you off, the fact that the opening monologue quotes Norman Mailer should be a great big clue that the ride you’re signing up for is going to be a bit of a mindfuck. It would be disingenuous to say that horror rarely tackles high concept fiction but I would say that it rarely takes on concepts like this so directly. Usually we don’t deal with such a naked metaphor, most films preferring to couch ideas of language and the effects of it in more comfortable abstract terms. That said, this film takes what is essentially a very cerebral (and therefore difficult to put into visuals) topic and makes it the central focus in a way that works exceptionally well. Playing with themes of isolation, especially given that they are in a basement in the middle of winter, really does a lot to reinforce all the parts that work. It really speaks to the talent of the people behind this movie that they could create that sense of dread with so little and the results are that you have a conceptual film that really lingers afterwards.
All this said, the film isn’t without its issues. For one, the pacing was a bit of a problem and while this is something that comes with the territory in a lot of zombie films, this one has the added bonus of that difficult concept to carry with it. To unpack that a bit, let’s think about how zombie films tend to go, shall we? The formula that we all know and love is that status quo is disrupted when the less than living start biting people and the virus spreads to most people in a given area. Survivors take shelter somewhere and drama happens while the plot takes a bit of a breather before a climatic showdown. This isn’t exclusive to just zombie films but it is something that becomes particularly pronounced in poorly done zombie flicks. There is a very big difference between a slow burn build a film that forgot the plot needed tending to. In a well done zombie movie, this is where the action pauses to let the characters reveal themselves and usually where shit really gets serious before the climax. In a bad film, this is where the plot takes a pee break while the audience watches a bunch of actors waste time between another zombie attack. In this film, the concept makes it difficult for them to do anything and this really stretches that barrier between slow burn and drag very thin. The tension is there because they can’t talk to each other and there are some words and phrases that are more likely to trigger the virus than others, making talking to certain people (like your loved ones) not only risky but maybe impossible. The isolation this creates is pitch perfect but it does limit what the characters are able to do. The other problem is that this film relies so much on exposition through dialogue to showcase what’s going on, the plot actually does get a little muddy here. We see how the virus affects people which is creepy as hell but it’s never really clear on how the words infect people and how certain ones become more dangerous than others. It also doesn’t really ever show for certain what the virus is actually doing, which leads us to the “zombies” themselves.
The director of this film, Bruce McDonald, stressed that the victims of this plague were not zombies at all but rather, he described them as “conversationalists”. With no disrespect meant to the man, I feel like this is a distinction that no one outside of the filmmakers would actually make and kind of disregards what people actually find frightening about zombies. After all, what is scarier than losing your faculties and forfeiting the agency of your body and mind to something that reduces all that you were into your baser instincts? In this film, while our infected aren’t actually the walking dead, they are stripped of their ability to communicate properly, lose touch with their humanity and eventually are reduced to the whims of the virus to find another victim to infect. You know, just like a zombie would do. I think this also leads into the issue that created the dragging parts of this film because in a traditional zombie movie, we know what’s coming, what’s at stake and how to avoid it. Here, it’s never really clear on how the virus takes hold of one person over another. We see Mazzy talking to people throughout the film who are infected but he doesn’t seem to succumb. We also see the other characters talking to people who are becoming infected but it doesn’t seem to jump from one to the other and even when the story is reduced to two characters, it’s unclear on why one of them becomes infected versus the other. This is a spot where the concept is actually working against the narrative because it is so hard to pin down. That said, I don’t think that it’s a deal breaker at all but it does lead to some moments that I think there were some lost opportunities on.
I’m foregoing any kind of spoiler section here because honestly, this film really should be experienced as blind as possible. The point of the whole thing is to make you think and the horror that lingers after really is only effective if you come to your own conclusions about it and I truly don’t want to spoil it for you. Besides, this isn’t really the same as your average slasher flick or some kind of Romero knock off, so spotlighting really awkward points or poor acting or shitty effects isn’t really relevant. Instead, I do want to touch on why I think that this film has been left a little lonely at the discussion table.
On the surface, it seems pretty obvious. This is high concept fiction and the premise isn’t really going to sell to an audience who wants quick jump scares and bloodied up boobies. That said, this was also released in 2008, which saw the releases of all manner of different facets of horror films. That year brought us the last gasp of the Japanese remakes in the form of One Missed Call, the much beloved/maligned Birdemic, the in name only remake Prom Night, the film that helped kick off the onslaught of found footage movies in Cloverfield and one of the more notorious entries in the New French Extremity film movement, Martyrs. Clearly this was a time that there was something for everyone, so even if it was a bit on the odd ball side of horror, there was still room at the table for Pontypool. The problem, I would argue, is that unlike any of the films mentioned, this one doesn’t have that strong of a sense of what’s at stake. We get to see the zombies and we do get that sense of dread they bring but we never actually see the scope of the epidemic. (Fuck putting it in quotes this time. They’re mindless cannibals wandering in droves, distracted by loud noises. You could have called them walkers, crazies, squirrels or anti-vegans and people would still just describe them as zombies.) Anyway. I think both of these things, the lack of a bigger picture and the filmmakers insisting on trying to pass the monsters off as something else, ultimately makes it harder for the audience to grab on to an anchor for the horror.
Adding to this, we have this overarching theme of sense and nonsense or, if you want to break it down to basics, order and chaos at play and that really makes things a lot muddier. One of the only things we are ever told about the virus is that it spreads when someone understands the infected word but from that point on, the word seems to be drained of meaning as the victim seemingly cannot communicate anymore and the breakdown continues until they become their zombified final form. If the filmmakers are trying to talk about the English language and its role as the Lingua Franca of the western world (or even the world at a glance), their message or the issues they are trying to tackle isn’t very clear. Granted, that might be the point but that leads to another little bit of an issue. The interplay of sense and nonsense is a really cool idea and I love the concept but it does kind of shoot your movie in the foot on some level when you begin to break it down and realize that everything you are watching might, in fact, be meaningless. The lack of any conclusive stand about the use of language or how the virus works is interesting in an intellectual way but it’s not hard to see why this would leave someone shaking their head at the end of it for the wrong reasons.
All this said, ultimately you probably just want to know if you should watch it. If you are a nerd and a horror junkie and someone who enjoys life a little on the cerebral side, the answer is an emphatic hells yes you should! This film has a brilliant concept and should be talked about. It should be watched more than once and it should be something that you look at with your sense engaged as opposed to something you just sink into the couch and watch while your mind is on auto pilot. That said, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t get why it has a 68% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. While critics love this film (their RT score sits at 84%), it’s not like the idea isn’t polarizing and a little bit heavier than sometimes the movie can comfortably carry. The dread is there and it’s real and it’s interesting. The lack of a solid villain or antagonistic element is also there and that isn’t always going to make for a satisfied viewer. As with anything that can show off the little Art House sticker on its chest, this film is definitely not for everyone. That said, you should definitely give it a look. It will make you think and I guarantee that it will be far more interesting than anything on Facebook.