IMDB: A psychological thriller in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town
TAG: Shut up or die.
Director: Bruce McDonald
Writers: Tony Burgess (novel), Tony Burgess
Stars: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly
REVIEW – BY STEPHEN RAFORD – 24th May 2014
Pontypool is a film set in a radio broadcast studio situated in the basement of a local church. The basement is decked out with its very own sound proof booth where our main character, shock jock Grant Mazzy broadcasts his now regular morning show. The show itself is all that he can do since being given the chop from some of the more major radio shows that, at a guess, couldn’t contain or control his larger than life personality. He is a hunter of event analysis with a slant for more aggressive explanations with a very discordant political viewpoint. He’s a rogue and he knows it, but at least he has a chance to be on the air, he realises soon enough that what is expected of him is simple day to day house cleaning tasks such as weather reports, school bus info and local news updates. He works with a producer Sydney, a middle aged woman who seems hell bent in trying to tame him, whereas the young and savvy assistant seems desensitised to his rants. The story begins as our shock jock drives into work; he encounters what appears to be an crazed, irate woman roaming about on the snow ridden road. Moving past this he arrives at the radio studio and immediately starts to try and work through what he’d experienced with his small team.
Now already if we’ve started watching this movie, we’re wondering – is this a zombie film, are we going to see zombies… what is the trigger for this whole event? Well, the news comes in and soon enough the three characters are embroiled in a “War of the Worlds” style setup with broadcasts of the chaos building around them in the form of hostage situations and random acts of violence out in the streets. As Pontypool is experiencing pretty bad blizzards, the whole town seems to be going into the chaos without really knowing what’s going on. This puts the characters in the radio studio in a space where they are unwilling to leave because of the severe weather, but most importantly for their dedication and social responsibility for ensuring the broadcasts for the situation are put out for all to hear.
The craziness becomes epidemic, and soon they realise that there really is nowhere else to be that is safe. They are soon joined by a Doctor who finds his way into the studio through a window, allowing him to bring exposition and new dynamic to the situation as it spirals out of their control.
Oh and there is ofcourse one more thing to mention here. The reason for the epidemic craziness, and the cause of the threat?
The English Language.
That’s right, you heard me. This is a unique take on the virus versus humanity story trope. Certain words become a trigger for the virus. Which words specifically, we can’t really clarify whether what these characters assumed were true. The story’s conclusion to this problem which is resolved within two hours is that these buzz words are activated when people start to repeat them. This turns into hysteria and soon people are able to mimic other people’s voices, phrases, expressions and sentiments almost involuntarily. This comes across within the accompanying expression of insanity that drives them to the sound of words being spoken like live meat would be for a flesh eating zombie. That is indeed the last stage of this virus: where people go so mad that they try to “consume” humans by feasting on their mouths.
This is one of those movies that you end up talking about to folks, urging them to go see it. The strange thing is that midway through explaining why people should watch, you find yourself wondering “why do I want you to watch this again?”
The film is one of those low budget independent movies that works under the premise that everything that could be inherently costly to film won’t be seen here – much like in Orsen Welle’s “War of the World” radio broadcast where sound beating through the radio, the scanners, television and telephone calls.
That in itself is a challenge within a movie going era where the audience is more vocal and sometimes irreverent to details within movies that don’t hit the exact chord as their highly tuned expectations – or so they would have you believe. Sometimes, I don’t think audiences really know what they want and so create their own dramas believing that these movies are meant to be made for them and them only.
The poster here depicts blood splatters which therefore demand all of that and more, but we only really see this happen to one person whereas for another, we see only being severely boot kicked to death because she had gone crazy. The promise of gore and a bloodbath to feast upon – so-to-speak – is forgiven because the fear flies past your eyes and it is your imagination and the uniqueness of the premise that are the fright makers in this instance.
The idea of words being the trigger and ultimately the descent into cannibalistic madness is a mind bender that must have already struck conversations well into the night. To me, it forms an allegory for the degradation of language over the recent decade, where words are no longer there to be discovered, but what exists in our vocabulary is manipulated, messed around with to a degree that sooner or later, cracks will show and language will crumble into the abyss. That’s rather a more dramatic viewpoint but transpose the idea of language into the metaphor of playing god with the ideas of inferior genes, genetic mutations and cloning. If we put that in the context of linguistic deformation and you have yourself an opening for something to get in that could tear through the fabric of the human race.
The amuzing thing is that this movie pulls no punches alluding to the idea that where the English language is no longer safe to use, French or any other language appear to be uninfected – although I’m sure that natural / native / learned uses of other languages can confirm to the idea that their language is also changing, and that the width and breadth of its useage is slowly but surely falling into itself.
If the above were true than we could assume that a wide vocabulary and extensive involvement with a language is the equivalent of a healthy body with an indestructible immune system. The thing is that out of the two ways to get through it:
• A: the infected has to be convinced, and the point was pushed here that they have to be really convinced, that their “infected word” that they repeat doesn’t mean what it really means. Talk about rewriting years of a strictly established, cognitive integration of a linguistic lexicon.
By the way, do you think I have a strong immune system? Well I have to admit that I use to be able to throw a great amount of words into my vocabulary but in turn was chastised for not using certain words that were in mass circulation. So this “infection” film is in a way praising the intellect and putting down those who have a limited vocabulary. A part of me thinks that the virus is simply an allegory for the bastardisation of language. To say something is an unmitigated contemporaneity is no longer cool street talk, but then it’s laymen counterpart “sheer coincidence” doesn’t carry any street cred either. Now, language is getting to be even lazier and I do think that this movie instigates discussion on such matters…
Sorry, I mean “it will make ya wanna talk about stuff. Ya dig?”
This doesn’t include the infection from the American English which to be honest I was brought up with. I happen to prefer many words used in the US against our own: pacifier beats out on “dummy” any day… and sidewalk sounds far more exciting than “pavement”.
Must have been those Sesame Street injections I had when I was very young.
The idea that language is deteriorating because of online interaction, texting, and social network means that this movie is rare. It actually labels a specific cause to the outbreak. Usually we assume there are massive influences as a reason for all those other zombie movies, such as genetic mutations, playing god and ofcourse global warming, but this is a man-made and very specific outbreak. That the only frontier that we have left to share is taking up international languages instead.
• B: Speak another language. In Pontypool, it is only the English language that is a threat. Convenient that this is a Canadian made film so they do have French to fall back on. I can see this as being a concept that could be adapted and reused in future films, amassing a great many different spins to the idea that one specific language could be a global killer.
In this film they use French as their fall-back language but not for long. They soon get bored, or perhaps the filmmakers got scared that the existence of subtitles for the remainder of the movie would not go down well. I’m all for it, in fact I have always loved foreign language movies and I do have aspirations to find a way to include a foreign language as a trope in a short film in the near future.
So back to the movie, and we’re now fully immersed in the theory and philosophy of the films message – or at the very least, we’ve come up with our own ideas as to what point the filmmakers might have been making. We have to remember that it is still a horror film, and even though the general components of a horror movie are not here, the effects of them are. We are surprised by the way the film delivers itself: putting the four characters in the very foreground of the story leaving the rest of the story far enough away that it feels like a realistic survivor story. There are no chance moments, really, and perhaps that is one of the potential flaws of the film, depending on how you look at it. The characters are never really at threat. The other thing I noticed was that even though they reacted to the events as you would do – with a huge amount of confusion and disbelief – when faced with hoards, they seem to be up for the challenge and relatively calm. It’s hard to say if this is a flaw in the fabric of the acting or if it was an intentional trait for the characters. There are no mad-cat screaming, faces of terror, but there is despair and there is bewilderment, but they seem to get into the mode of accepting the situation mighty fast after the revelation came about.
Final thoughts: This is a low budget, smartly executed, tightly edited, well produced film that never gets boring. You are with it the whole way. To film in the one location, create and build the tension while keeping it from becoming stale is a challenge, and for all intent and purpose, it delivers. It could be produced as a play. The audience would certainly get a kick out of having wandering hoards around and about the stage and perhaps even emerging from the audience as infected “zombies”. Leave that thought in the back of your head, but if you haven’t seen this, go find it on Amazon Prime or Netflix – enjoy this for there are very few movies like it.