Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pontypool (2008) - Recipe for Success

On the Menu: PONTYPOOL (2008); Blockbuster Exclusive DVD

Ingredients: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Rick Roberts and Hrant Alianak. Directed by Bruce McDonald. Run time: 96 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: I don't remember exactly which film I was watching that included the trailer for PONTYPOOL (I think it was FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN back in January), but I immediately made a mental note to watch it.

Former shock jock Grant Mazzy (McHattie), fired from his big-city job is now the DJ of CLSY, the station in the small town of Pontypool. The station is broadcast from the basement of a church, and employs Mazzy, producer Sydney Briar (Houle), assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Reilly) and traffic reporter Ken Loney (voiced by Rick Roberts).

Mazzy has a strange run-in with a babbling woman on his way to work. While trying to incorporate this story into his morning show, all the while battling with Briar over content, reports are phoned in of a riot about 5 kilometers away outside of Dr. Mendez's office. The news wire has nothing to confirm the stories, but Loney keeps calling in with increasingly frightening stories.

Turns out the townspeople have become infected with a virus, and have resorted to attacking each other. Dr. Mendez determines the virus is spread through words. Apparently, some words are contaminated, and the virus takes hold when the word is understood.

Well, Mazzy is on the radio. Should he be talking about it?

Second Helping: I watched the movie again to count the use of any terms of endearment. There were 17 uses of the word "honey" (with another 3 implied). "Sweetie" was said 3 times and "sweetheart" was mentioned twice. Obviously, the recording at the opening of the movie might have a lot to do with what goes on later, although we have to assume the virus just appeared with no real explanation of its origin.

Tough to Swallow: The movie tries to imply that terms of endearment might be contaminated words, but a couple of characters seem to catch the virus without hearing anything of the sort. And victims get hung up on words like "sample" or "kill," which is even more confusing. The scene after the closing credits was just as confusing.

I think they could have sent out a better distress signal (maybe even using Morse Code). Oh, and all of the characters suck pretty bad at playing the quiet game.

Also, this version of the DVD has no special features aside from the theatrical trailer.

Something to Chew On: The movie is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. Burgess also adapted the screenplay. According to director Bruce McDonald, the script only took Burgess 48 hours to complete. The movie was shot in Toronto and Pontypool (both cities are in Ontario). The entire shoot lasted 15 days and was done in chronological order.

PONTYPOOL was simultaneously produced as a motion picture and a radio play.

The movie was, according to McDonald, to be distributed in South Korea with the tagline "Fear English!"

McDonald, at the Rue Morgue's 2008 Festival of Fear, had this to say about the virus (which would have been a better explanation than what Dr. Mendez gave):
There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it's words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can't express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
A copy of Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash can be seen in the film. Its plot is similar in that a language-born virus infects the brains of its victims.

McHattie and Houle are married in real life and have 3 children.

A sequel entitled PONTYPOOL CHANGES is in development.

The film currently has a 7.0 user rating on (2,899 votes).

Sides: This Blockbuster Exclusive DVD includes the trailer. Whoop-dee-freakin-doo.

The retail DVD has a commentary track from McDonald and Burgess. It also has the hour-long radio play, as well as 3 unrelated short films. I've also read that the UK release includes cast and director interviews, and a documentary of the sound design. So, depending on whether or not the UK version is Region 1, a double-dipping of this movie on DVD might be worth it.

Aftertaste: PONTYPOOL is a very claustrophobic film. The movie's first 2 and a half minutes are the only significant moments we spend outside of the radio station. Also, most of the gruesomeness is merely suggested by phone calls from eyewitnesses. That's a good way for a horror film to maintain its suspense and foreboding. Monsters are a lot scarier when you have to use your own imagination. Sure, you're implanted with the descriptions, but you call upon your fears to personalize the images that appear in your mind. I don't know how many horror movies I've watched where I've been really freaked out by the implied monster(s) only to be severely disappointed with the actual visual representation of the monster(s) -- JEEPERS CREEPERS and THE DESCENT are prime examples.

McHattie, who looks like Lance Henriksen, is super intense, has a great voice for radio and is so believable. You can really feel the dread in his character's words and expressions.

This IS NOT a zombie movie and has VERY LITTLE blood and gore. So, there are certain horror fans who might feel gypped. It's definitely more of a psychological horror film. It really reminded me of listening to Orson Welle's radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Of course, I later found out that broadcast was the inspiration for the screenplay.

I loved the idea of a language-born virus. It definitely puts a new twist on the zombie/virus subgenre. Most of the contaminated words seem to be terms of endearment, e.g. "honey" and "sweetheart." The kicker is that the movie is set on Valentine's Day. It's just genius.

I would be remiss not to mention the satire. Only the English language is affected by the virus. Well, the movie is set in Ontario, Canada, so it's possible that the movie is alluding to the culture war of the French language versus the English language. Do you lose your culture when you adopt another?

Or better yet, it makes me think of what seems to be happening in today's political world. Think about it. In the movie, people become infected and eventually become zombie-like beings only capable of repeating someone else's words. Glenn Beck, anyone?

Although, if you factor in that the radio station is in a church basement, maybe it's a commentary on religion.

Regardless, minus the blood and guts, it has all the ingredients you want in a smart horror film.


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