When reviews dismiss a movie with “better as a Twilight Zone episode”, it doesn’t put me off seeing it. If anything, it might imply that the running time is bloated or that the plot is paper-thin, but for Canadian offering Pontypool (2008), its simplicity is its strength.
A zombie movie of sorts, the entire film takes place in an Ontario-based radio station (and its pacing doesn’t suffer one bit for it). Former shock jock Grant Mazzy (velvet-voiced Stephen McHattie) is on his way to said station when a disoriented naked woman taps on his car window, yells some unintelliigble stuff about Hitler, then fucks off.
Later at work,he’s reeling off mundane school closures, Honey the missing cat, and other small town dullness, with just a report of a mini drunken riot to break up the monotony. Grant’s station manager Sydney (Lisa Houle) is less than impressed; returning Afghanistan vet/technical assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Drummond) is indifferent.
Things get simultaneously clearer and more confusing once not-really-in-a-helicopter helicopter reporter Ken (voice of Rick Roberts) chimes in with a series of increasingly disturbing eyewitness reports – that the mini-riots have become riots, the riots have become mobs, the mobs have become hordes, and the hordes have become violent – murderously, cannibalistically, zombie-ly violent.
This, naturally, sends our trio into a bit of a tizzy. Nobody knows what’s really going on (this is pre-2009 Twitter/Iran elections), and police are just straight-up non-contactable/speaking gibberish early on, which is how it all starts. All they can do is continue to try to gather more reports from anyone they can appeal to. Normally, a radio show would be the perfect method for such a call-to-action, but it soon transpires that the horde-like behaviour is language-based – that the virus travels through words. Soon, the majority of the town is rambling incoherently and proper murdering each other.
The aforementioned simplicity of the movie makes this all work and just keeps all the tension bottled in, like a trapped fart. Nobody can enter or leave the station, details are pretty scant, they’re all alone and this is a pretty unusual situation that none of the characters would ever had seen, had they ever watched a movie. We don’t see any of the outside world – everything that takes place before your eyes takes place in the studio, and we rely on reactions from the principal characters, or telling-not-showing updates from Ken, to churn out the plot developments. Yet it never feels forced or comes off as collateral damage for having a rock-bottom production budget.
It perfectly captured the beginning of a crisis – especially a bizarre one – right in the heart of all of this “unknownness”, with our trio trying to figure out this bizarre situation, making mistakes, trying to be heroes – acting like they hope they’re in a movie, because that’s exactly what you’d imagine you’d do yourself, and what you’d expect to see in a movie like this. My only suggestion was that it might have taken place in real time, just to heighten the tension further, but maybe that would have been gimmicky.
Based on a book and then written for the screen by the author, it’s a wonderfully chilling bit of socio-linguistic commentary, an inventive take on zombie lore. Both lead actors carry their parts quite well (otherwise, t’would have been utter disaster), and the score is effective without being intrusive. There’s even some brilliant sparks of black humour (including the outing of a late town paedophile, an endless string of obituaries and an unexpected blackface moment). Two sequels are rumoured, both of which will supposedly explain the origin of the virus. Hopefully one of them will also explain what happened to Honey the Cat.