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Pontypool (2009)
Director: Bruce McDonald

review by Max Cairnduff

This is an imaginative, well directed and well acted Canadian horror movie that takes what (for me at least) is an increasingly tired genre - the zombie movie - and does something genuinely new and interesting with it.

The concept of Pontypool is a simple one, a morning radio host, his producer and a technician are holed up in a small town radio station while heavy snow conditions play outside. As they make the morning broadcast, disturbing reports start to come in from callers and the traffic reporter in his 'sunshine chopper' of seemingly motiveless attacks and mob behaviour, reports that come closer to the station (and get stranger) as the morning goes on.

There's now a fairly standard template for zombie movies. We get to see the zombies, there are fights with them, the survivors hole-up but then fall out among themselves, and someone lets the zombies in. The recent UK horror release, Colin, ignored that standard approach to good effect, Pontypool ignores it too as here for much of the film it's far from clear to the characters what is happening. Early on it sounds like some locals might have got drunk and started trouble, then it seems there are riots around the offices of a local GP who had recently been accused of selling fake prescriptions, then it becomes apparent that people are dying. The horror of the situation is effectively brought through by the powerlessness of the characters, who can only listen to calls made to the station and do the best they can to broadcast updates as they come in.

The result of that is for the first hour it's basically the cast talking. Grant Mazzy (Stephen MacHattie) is a fading radio personality, now reduced to working local radio and furious about it. He rants on-air about marijuana legalisation and animal testing, and makes jokes about local police. Trying to keep him under control is producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), who hired him for his 'Mazzyness', his star power, but needs him to tone it down for a local audience and wants him to mix in stories about whether school buses are running. Supporting them both is audio technician and Afghanistan veteran, Laurel Ann Drummond (played by Georgina Reilly), friendly - if quiet - she becomes noticeably more assertive when danger threatens and causes her military training to kick back in. Finally, Hrant Alianak is also enjoyable, as a survivor who finds his way into the station.

MacHattie, Houle and Reilly's characters feel like people who work together, they're easy to care about and, when things start to happen, their confusion and horror is all too credible. It's rare to see a horror movie where the characters aren't simply selfish or infighting, but here they do their best to keep broadcasting and to let people know what's happening. They do their jobs.

And that creates the film's central dilemma, because the team's job is to make good radio and to keep people informed, but as the film quickly makes apparent (to the viewer anyway, it takes a little longer for the characters) broadcasting what's happening may make it worse. That's because what's happening isn't zombies, it's the spread of a memetic virus - a virus that is passed on through speech, particularly content free speech (baby talk, terms of endearment and so on). If you hear an infected word, you risk being infected. Once infected, a victim gets stuck repeating a word or sound, but as the disease takes its course they end up seeking to devour the uninfected. The mobs outside aren't undead, they're seriously ill, but they're still very dangerous. With speech infectious, warning people may just put them at greater risk.

Pontypool has a nice line in social commentary, both at the obvious level (people losing the ability to talk to each other and becoming instead a faceless mob) and at a subtler level too (communication without content is dangerous; the government finds it easier to shoot its citizens than talk to them). At one point the station takes a call from the BBC, seeking to confirm reports of mass riots and troop mobilisations from a source on the spot. They play down what's happening, but the BBC run pretty much the same story anyway. We're talking a lot, but we're not saying anything.

Pontypool was scripted by Tony Burgess, who wrote the novel on which it is based. It is clever, thoughtful and the cast are just spot on. The final third of the film isn't quite as strong as the build-up, there's a lone infected attack at one point that really doesn't make much sense, and as ever with horror the monsters are less scary once we see them, but there's still some genuine comedy as the characters try to find ways to communicate without using potentially dangerous words and some real suspense.

Overall, Pontypool is an intelligent and skilful horror movie, and as the preview version came with preview text across the bottom of the screen I'll be picking up my own home copy once it's released in January. The disc came without extras, but I understand the DVD release may include cast and director interviews, among other things.

Pontypool poster

Pontypool on blu-ray

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