Pontypool (2008)

Pontypool first published by Film4

Synopsis: In parochial Pontypool, a shock jock probes, prods and provokes the end of the world (as we know it). Cult Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61, The Tracey Fragments) directs this reality-warping horror.

Review: “Pontypool. Pontypool. Pantypool. Pont du Flaque. What does it mean?”

If, as William S Burroughs liked to assert, language is a virus, then it is hard to tell whether shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is better suited to be its carrier or its cure. A cynical wordsmith, he deploys rampant puns, free associations, metaphorical excursions and free-wheeling irony to shake up his audience from their everyday existences – and now that he has been fired from his job in the big smoke, his special brand of verbal provocation is being visited upon small-town Pontypool, Ontario.

There, one snowy Valentine’s Day morning, in the church basement that serves as the local station’s studio, adoring ‘technical cowgirl’ Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) looks on as Grant spars with his producer Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life partner Lisa Houle) over what is fit to be broadcast, when calls begin to come in reporting outbursts of aberrant behaviour in the community. No official confirmation or explanation is forthcoming on the wires, but soon even the station’s own weather reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) is phoning in with an eyewitness account of a violent riot around the offices of one Dr Mendez, and then of even stranger, more horrific goings-on.

BBC Television’s Nigel Healing (Daniel Fathers) gets in touch live, seeking further information on the unfolding events and speculating that French separatists may be behind the unrest – something that sounds bizarre, but for the fact that the transmission is interrupted not long afterwards by an alarming message in French. And then, out of the blue, a ‘herd’ of babbling, maniacal Pontypoolers arrives outside the station, as does the ranting Mendez himself (Hrant Alianak). Facing up to this outbreak of madness with a mixture of grizzled cool and increased confusion, the beleaguered Grant starts to wonder whether he may himself be a ‘host’ in more senses than one, as something beyond mere words spreads rapidly over the chill air. The time has at last come for Grant to unleash his full ‘Mazzy-ness’ – and the world may never be the same again.

Given that the principal characters here come under siege from an aggressive and hungry version of their own kind, it might be tempting to regard Pontypool as yet another 21st century variation on the type of zombie movie pioneered by George A Romero in Night Of The Living Dead (1968), but really it comes closer to Romero’s The Crazies (1973) – or David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush’s The Signal (2007) – in the paranoid way it portrays personal madness and social disintegration from the inside.

Right from its opening sequence in which (to the accompanying sound of one of Grant’s verbal streams of consciousness) letters appear one by one on screen, first to form the word ‘typo’ before finally resolving themselves into the title Pontypool, Bruce McDonald’s film makes the hiccups, slips and ruptures of language itself form the basis of his quirky Saussurean horror, where nothing is more terrifying (and ultimately liberating) than the arbitrariness of the sign. Despite the limited setting and even more limited budget, every unhinged or macabre action is conjured seemingly out of thin air by the protagonist’s (and others’) verbal flights of fancy. Accordingly, these characters are trapped not only in their claustrophobic studio basement, but also in a prison house of language from which irrationality is the only possible escape.

Don’t be distracted by the occasional nods to genre convention (all of which are red herrings) – Pontypool really is something altogether new and revolutionary in the annals of horror. Tony Burgess’ script, very loosely adapted from his own ‘unfilmable’ 1995 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, is so smartly constructed and so richly nuanced that its meaning seems to shift and alter radically with each subsequent viewing, infecting what we see with the suggestive and equivocal possibilities of what we hear. The film’s sound design is suitably disorienting, as are (eventually, and always subtly) the visuals, while the characters’ growing sense of bewilderment carefully modulates our own. If Academy Awards were ever offered to the stars of idiosyncratic independent horror films, then McHattie would certainly deserve his, in a bravura performance that offers, all at once, cynical bemusement, megalomaniac showmanship and the sort of deep existential panic that accompanies the unravelling of one’s reality.

The very best, however, is saved till last. Stick around through the closing credits, and you will be treated to a genre- (and brain) bending coda as pleasing to the eye as it is confounding to the mind. “How do you not understand?” was the riddle that Grant had posed to himself earlier, and this final sequence offers the perfect solution, in (near) black and white.

In a nutshell: This unsettlingly quirky account of semiological breakdown and small-town apocalypse plays like My Winnipeg for fans of intellectual horror. Pontypool is as astonishing as it is original, and amply repays multiple viewings.

© Anton Bitel