I’m a sucker for a good zombie story. I really am. And one thing I’ve always loved about the zombie subgenre is that it can spread out to cover an even wider range of genres, from outright horror like Romero’s classic Living Dead films to comedy like Shaun of the Dead. All kinds of tales big and small can be told under the zombie umbrella, and the undead themselves can come in all sorts of forms ranging from shuffling hordes to sprinting maniacs. There’s a lot of potential for film-makers to have fun with it however they please, and though it feels like there’s typically 25 outright terrible films for every actual gem, now and again one comes along with a neat premise and clever spin that catches my attention.
Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool was one such film I’d heard good things about over the years since it was released back in 2009, and I figured it was high time to finally check it out. The setup is simple: A disc jockey, a radio station manager, and an assistant in the town of Pontypool find their regular day at work taking a turn for the worst as reports begin coming in that the citizens of the town have inexplicably begun to go crazy, and the line between real fact and embellished fiction is blurred as the sheltered trio have no choice but to rely on limited information in deciding whether it’s all one big hoax, some sort of terrorist uprising, or something worse.
Unlike most stories of this type, wherein we see media reports through the eyes of outside protagonists - that is, if we see any media at all - Pontypool places us right there with this trio through the entire film, letting us see how things fall apart from their point-of-view, offering a unique perspective through which to experience the potential end of the world that we don’t typically get. Outside of the opening scene, the film never leaves the radio station setting, boxing both its characters and audience in together for a claustrophobic experience as all try to make sense of what exactly is going on outside.
For the first two-thirds of the film, this streamlined storytelling works: A single setting, a limited number of characters, and a very clear-cut premise all add up to make a compelling experience. However, such restraints do lead to an almost unavoidable need for a slow burn, and whether or not it clicks for any individual viewer is reliant on their interest in watching a character inside a sound booth essentially talking into a microphone for an hour with the occasional break to interact with the other two characters. It’s a deliberately paced film that may wear out some people’s patience, but even the slowest of burns will always work so long as the ultimate payoff is worth it.
Now, before I get into expressing my thoughts over the final act of the film, I want to point out the things that really worked for me. The small cast is great, particularly Stephen McHattie’s radio personality, Grant Mazzy. It’s a great matchup between role and actor, as McHattie’s voice alone works so well in selling Mazzy as a guy you'd expect to turn on the radio one day and hear. Considering the fact he and Lisa Houle’s radio manager, Sydney Briar, have to carry almost the entire film on their shoulders, anything less than solid from either of them would’ve caused the whole effort to crumble right off the bat, but thankfully they both deliver great work, especially as their own mental and emotional fortitude begins to break down the further along the film gets.
Another aspect of note that worked for me was the way events on the outside are relayed to the group. Several characters call in or get called that help to paint a picture of the events that are unfolding, and there are a handful of solid moments that embrace the tension behind Mazzy having to helplessly listen as the station’s unseen “eye in the sky” persona’s life is put in peril. As I mentioned earlier, for much of the film we’re just as in the dark as the radio gang is about exactly what the ever-increasing mob moving through Pontypool even is, whether they’re zombies or separatists or something else entirely, but the relayed descriptions of people being pulled out of cars and torn apart and so on go a long way in letting our minds wander to the edge of hopelessness just as it does our defenseless leads.
For those who like directly seeing that type of gory violence played out rather than described in their genre movies like this, you may be disappointed in how restrained the film is. All but one death occurs off-screen, and the typical level of gore one would understandably associate with modern day zombie fare is really nowhere to be seen. That’s not to say there aren’t moments - one in particular late in the game effectively drives home the reality of the group’s situation - but on the whole, there’s little to nothing to truly satisfy those looking to gleefully cringe their way through the proceedings.
As for the film’s final act - where that aforementioned make it or break it payoff lies - the characters eventually find themselves joined by a doctor who proceeds to spout exposition and shine a light on exactly what’s going on that is driving the citizens of Pontypool crazy. Without spoiling it, it’s a truly out there revelation, and one that I found to be intriguing simply for daring to be unique, but ultimately disappointing in its overall execution. It wasn’t enough to wholly derail what I found to be a strong movie leading up to it, but it did deflate it nonetheless, as it marks a turning point for the film that moves it away from the relatively grounded buildup and into something else. The more that gets explained, the less interesting and effective the whole thing becomes, doing everything that came before it somewhat of a disservice that managed to disconnect me from the film a bit.
It’s odd to say, but Pontypool’s strengths come more from the journey than the destination. I came out the other end of the film glad I had watched it, but not completely satisfied with where it had taken me. For most of the film, it chugs right along, that slow burn giving the characters and the increasing sense of paranoia and claustrophobia the opportunity to shine in a way that I truly enjoyed experiencing, but the moment the veil began to be lifted is when the whole thing started to unravel for me rather than grow stronger, losing the ambiguity that had been working in the film’s favor. Ultimately, I appreciate what Pontypool set out to do, laud its simple ingenuity in doing something clever within the zombie subgenre, and can suggest it for anyone looking for “something different” out of their horror movies, but it’s not a film I find myself eager to revisit again anytime soon.
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