(IFC) Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts (voice), Daniel Fathers (voice), Beatriz Yuste, Tony Burgess. Directed by Bruce McDonald
We use language as a tool to communicate; as a matter of fact it is a necessity. Without language we can’t communicate and without communication society tends to descend into chaos. Language is a prerequisite for civilization. In recent years, we have added enough jargon, slang and nonsense to stretch the English language to the breaking point. What would happen if our language began to fight back?
Grant Mazzy (McHattie) is a shock jock who has seen better days. Fired from his job at a big city station for saying things over the air that his station manager didn’t want him to say, he has landed as the morning drive time jock at the sole radio station in Pontypool, a flea speck of a town in northern Ontario, and I’m thinking it wasn’t the one Neil Young had in mind when he wrote “Helpless.”
Once a voice in the Canadian consciousness, Mazzy is reduced to reporting about lost cats, drinking enough coffee (heavily spiked of course) to drown said cats, and bickering with his producer, Sydney Briar (Houle). His engineer, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Reilly) just returned from a tour of Afghanistan and tends to want Mazzy to speak his mind whereas Sydney wants no repetition of the incident that got him fired and makes it clear he’s on a short leash. All in all not the most dazzling first day on the job.
Then, strange reports begin to come in. The “Sunshine Traffic Copter” (that is in reality a guy parked in a truck on top of a hill overlooking the town) reports a crowd gathering outside the office of the local physician, Dr. Mendez (Alianak). Soon, the increasingly agitated Ken Loney (Roberts) – the guy parked in the truck – makes it clear that the mob is getting violent, ugly. And as the morning wears on, it becomes even clearer that there is something wrong with the people of Pontypool – they’ve developed a taste for human flesh.
As authority breaks down, the three slowly realize that they are under siege in their basement studio. Eventually, Dr. Mendez arrives at the station and informs them that there is a virus going around, but no ordinary one – it is carried through certain words in the English language. In fact, the only way to maintain safety is to speak French, which will certainly have the French separatists in Quebec giving the citizens of Canada a great big “I told you so.”
All kidding aside, this no-budget Canadian horror film is actually rather effective. McDonald, whose last film was the less-than-stellar The Tracey Fragments does a good job of utilizing the claustrophobic nature of the basement sound studio, maintaining the frustration of the staff as they struggle to discover what is going on outside their doors. McHattie, Reilly and Houle all do credible jobs as people who don’t particularly like each other suddenly forced to depend on each other.
It takes a little while for the tension to get amped up but once it gets there, McDonald and writer Tony Burgess sustain it nicely. The ending is also nicely ambiguous, not only leaving room for further sequels (apparently one is in the works) but also leaving viewers wanting a sequel.
The budget is virtually non-existent, forcing a bit of creativity for the moviemakers. Almost all of the action takes place in the sound booth where Mazzy does his thing; while that gives a nice feeling of claustrophobia, it also makes for a very static film, almost as if it were the filmed version of a play. While Orson Welles’ version of The War of the Worlds was effective in its day, radio reports of horror don’t really move the modern horror film audience as profoundly.
However, props and kudos to the filmmakers for taking an unusual concept and sticking to it; many filmmakers don’t have that kind of courage of conviction. Pontypool won’t rewrite the horror genre, but it does provide a thoughtful, insightful thriller with horrific elements that should keep fans who like their horror less visceral and more cerebral quite satisfied.
WHY RENT THIS: A taut thriller with horror elements that utilizes the claustrophobic nature of its main setting nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags in places and with the action mainly limited to a single room, lacks a bit of scope that might have served the story better.
FAMILY VALUES: Unrated; there isn’t a lot of gore although there is some. There’s also a bit of foul language and a good deal of tension; definitely not for the squeamish or the impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tony Burgess, who plays Tony/Lawrence in the movie, also wrote the screenplay as well as the novel it’s based upon.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Actually, there’s a fair amount of extras here, including a trio of short films unrelated to the main feature, as well as the audio-only CBC radio version of the play the movie is based on.
FINAL RATING: 5/10