Movie Review – Pontypool (2008)

“Pontypool. Pontypool. Panty pool. Pont de Flaque. What does it mean?… In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other. It’s a ripple effect. So, what does it mean? Well… it means something’s going to happen. Something big. But then, something’s always about to happen.”

Pontypool (2008) is a Canadian horror film written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, and directed by Bruce McDonald. Inspired by Orson Wells’ 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which infamously caused (likely overstated) panic in its unsuspecting audience, Burgess’s story was produced as both a feature film and as a radio play. A fresh take on the zombie narrative, the movie takes place almost entirely in a make-shift radio station during a snow storm, as a recently fired shock jock tries to adjust to his new gig as a small town disc jockey. Played perfectly by Stephen McHattie, Grant Mazzy is gruff and resentful toward his perceived demotion, but has such a mastery of linguistics due to his job that as the virus spreads via language (specifically English) words for him have become already so malleable as to be meaningless that he alone can keep a clear head. His producer, Syndey, is played by Lisa Houle (McHattie’s wife). We see little of the horror but rather hear it through phone calls and broadcasts, and we have to piece together the puzzle along with the characters.

Pontypool still 2008

Unlike many other Canadian horror movies, Pontypool wears its maple stains clearly on its sleeve and pulls its narratives from that country’s unique experiences. We see themes of language duality in a country with two official languages and of the perceived disparate statuses that both languages appear to hold. The three main characters we see, residents of Ontario, are Anglophones whose knowledge of French is meager. We here of French separatists and a radio transmission which seeks to save only those who can understand French.

The film plays heavily with the notion that truth is subjective. Throughout the first half of the film the characters cannot determine if what they’re hearing is real, a hoax, or a misunderstanding. They’re reluctant to take things at face value, as they’re largely in the business of illusion. Their traffic reporter’s “Sunshine Chopper” is actually a van on a hill. Sydney knows the small town’s secrets but helps to keep up the appearance of normalcy. Words, too, are given deep examination. Their meanings can have profound effects on us, and as Mazzy demonstrates, sometimes talking – taking the diplomatic approach – can be more effectual than physical force.

Pontypool is one of those “bottle movies” – predominately taking place in a single location – for which I have a great fondness (other examples include Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window, Rope, The Breakfast Club, The Mist, etc.). It allows the actors to really use the space and allows the audience to concentrate on their performances. Pontypool is a quiet but still effective horror film with enough humor to keep things fun and fresh.

“I’m still here, you cocksuckers.”

Grade: B+