This review might kill or infect someone, so I have to be careful. In Pontypool, the English language itself is a courier for rabid undeath. People all over the snowy Ontario community come down with some sort of verbal virus, which makes them repeat certain words over and over, leading to madness and then flailing cannibalism. Are they zombies? The word seems imprecise. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, refers to them as “conversationalists.”

The movie is based on Tony Burgess’ 1997 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, a gorgeously composed experiment in wordplay. (Often, it’s as if the very book itself is being assaulted from within by its own language, and the reader experiences a heady form of disorientation.) It’s also highly subjective and episodic and as such impossible to adapt. So Burgess pulled one of the characters, radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), and put him at the center of a minimalist story in which he and a few others are trapped in a church basement (where Grant’s station is set up) during the “conversationalist” outbreak in Pontypool.

McHattie, an always-intriguing character actor, carries Pontypool with grace and ease. Grant, a saturnine DJ whose motto is “Take no prisoners,” likes to rant on the air and stir things up; he’s been fired from one gig and is starting over again at this literal bottom-drawer station, with the help of manager Sydney (Lisa Houle) and local-hero intern Laurel (Georgina Reilly). Odd reports start filtering into the news segments, and before long the infection has found its way inside the station. The plague finds its root in Grant’s very livelihood, which he and the others must renounce or work around if they hope to survive.

Pontypool, ironically, takes its cue from the lulling rhythms of McHattie’s speech. It is, if you will, a thinking person’s zombie movie, which in practice means the gore level is low and the dialogue level (up to a certain point) is high. It’s never boring, though; McHattie and Lisa Houle have an amusingly confrontational rapport, and as the outside threat ramps up, the tension builds realistically. A solution is proposed, but who knows if it will work?

Pontypool sort of loses focus towards the end, as if the screenwriting software had succumbed to the virus. But it’s still an entertaining cerebral chiller wherein language both loses and gains meaning — a true horror film for those who care about words. 4

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, art-house, horror

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