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Stream to Scream: “PONTYPOOL”

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The power of language is not to be underestimated. Whenever one listens to a speech or reads a magazine article, the use of words, their intended message, and their potential subtexts, are all important factors to pay attention to, because more than anything we want to extrapolate the meaning of the speaker/author’s words, to understand them and perhaps communicate with them.

Words are weapons, and like any other weapon, they can do serious damage when they’re misused. Hyberbolic rants can whip people into a frenzy, and entire words or phrases can be removed from their context and repurposed over and over until they completely lose their impact. A word like “epic” used to be a descriptor for a momentous occasion, now it is mainly deployed as adjective for when people fall flat on their faces in failed stunts or exhibit a devastating level of ignorance. William S. Burroughs once wrote that “language is a virus.” Like any other virus, language can evolve and find new ways to infect us if we are not on our guard. This is the nature of the mysterious disease that brings all kinds of strangeness and chaos down upon the main characters of Bruce McDonald’s 2008 Canadian horror film, PONTYPOOL.

The story starts small: In the sleepy little town of Pontypool, fallen shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is driving through the thick of night and a nasty snowstorm, on his way to work as an announcer at the local radio station. While stopped for a moment, Mazzy is surprised by a woman pounding on his window, babbling nonsense. The bewildered radio personality tries to talk to her, but she simply parrots everything he says, and soon wanders off into to the cold darkness, shouting “Who are you?!” over and over. Nonplussed, Grant continues on his way to the station where his broadcasting duties await him.

In the church basement from where the station broadcasts, Mazzy is joined by his faithful tech assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly), an Afghanistan veteran with a sweet and supportive demeanor, and producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), who is constantly trying to reign in her  tenacious announcer’s “take no prisoners” style. The day starts off quietly enough, with Sydney stressing the need to get out the school closings and Grant launching into a contrived rant about armed pot growers in an attempt to rekindle his shock jock glory.

Soon enough, accounts of strange happening start filtering into the station. First, eye in the sky reporter Ken Loney (whose “Sunshine Chopper” is really a Dodge Dart and some helicopter sound effects) gives an eye witness account of a riot going down at a local doctor’s office. This is followed by frantic call-ins from listeners, which all seem to get cut off before any real information can get passed along. Eventually, word gets out that Pontypool has been quarantined, and law enforcement officials phone in with tales of townsfolk attacking each other, eating each other, and repeating random words and sentences as they do so.

Perhaps most bizarrely of all (and this a flick where a lot of bizarre things happen), a communique spoken entirely in French briefly blares over the broadcast, and once deciphered, it commands the following: Do not use terms of endearment, do not go outside, and above all, AVOID the English language.

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Grant and his crew do their best to keep things business-as-usual while the world outside seems to be collapsing around them, but it’s no use. The station is soon surrounded by the infected denizens of Pontypool, and certain members of the crew begin displaying symptoms of this mysterious “word virus”…

The film is based on Tony Burgess’ 1995 novel PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING, and was scripted by the author as well. Burgess clearly has a knack for adapting his work across mediums, because he manages to craft a brilliantly minimalist movie about a new epidemic that plays out like a surrealist remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Save for the film’s opening sequence, the story takes place entirely within the confines of the radio station, giving the viewer a distinct feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness as the outbreak grows and the blathering infected grow closer and closer. To his credit, director McDonald knows how to fill the film with a winning combination of tight close ups on characters as they appear to repeatedly reach their breaking points, and wide shots of the station and all of its tech to establish and re-establish how empty and sterile their makeshift safehaven feels.

The cast’s acting abilities deserve quite a bit of praise as well. McHattie’s portrayal of Grant as a grizzled, disillusioned entertainer in a cowboy hat manages to come off as instantly endearing in a working-man’s-blues type of way, and the viewer is automatically feeling for him as he grows increasingly frustrated by the literally inexplicable insanity he’s faced with. Lisa Houle plays Sydney with equal parts tenderness and inner-strength; a woman who you’d want by your side at the zero hour. Even late-entry character Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak) is played with a kind of rapid excitement that proves to be infectious (pun intended) and helps make his role as an exposition/explanation machine much more palatable than it would have been in the hands of a lesser performer.

Without spoiling too much, this writer can declare confidently that the film’s final sequences, which shows our frazzled protagonists exploring the film’s themes of language, infection, and understanding (or lack thereof) to their absolute limits, are some of the most engaging moments of cinema he’s witnessed in quite some time. One scene in particular features a character trying to change the meaning of the word “kiss” to save an infected friend, and it has all the intensity of Tom Atkin’s desperate pleas at the end of HALLOWEEN III.

Horror fans: If you are looking for a film with something genuinely new to offer, a film filled with scares and dread and pathos, a film that has leaves you thinking (and shivering) long after the credits roll, then I strongly recommend you open up a Netflix tab and check out PONTYPOOL.  Stop understanding. We were never making sense anyway.

About the author
Christopher La Vigna

Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna

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