I’m making this a spoiler-heavy, in-depth review because of the fact that Pontypool could’ve been a great horror movie. In fact, the first half was near flawless.
But I’ll get to that. Boy will I ever. You see, I got a few favorite concepts out there that work great by themselves. Sometimes a smarty pants comes along and merges two of the concepts to create what I call a “super concept.” It’s kinda like when rock stars from different bands get together to form “super bands.” Sometimes it works (Traveling Wilburys), sometimes it doesn’t (Hear ‘n Aid). This concept worked… almost.
In what amounts to a mix of Talk Radio, Night of the Living Dead and War of the Worlds, we meet our protagonist, Grant Mazzy (Steven McHattie) as he arrives for work. Grant was a radio shock jock in a major Canadian city before burning out and taking a job announcing morning school closures in the small burg of Pontypool, Ontario. As he walks inside he’s spooked by a woman who confronts him and spouts nonsense before she disappears into the morning dark. This sets the tone as Grant begins his morning show accompanied by his level-headed producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and his Afghanistan war hero technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly). After a few bizarre call-ins and a freaky live performance that disintegrates into a mess, the crew soon learns that something nefarious is happening to their town. Suddenly, they are overrun by zombies… or maybe something worse. With the world listening, Grant finds himself as the only beacon of hope in a situation going increasingly out of control.
Great idea, right? I loved the concept, the characters, the small and intimate setting. It could almost be a stage play because once inside, we never leave the studio. Hearing what’s happening on the outside through eyewitness accounts is nearly as terrifying as seeing it first hand. There’s a scene where their traffic reporter gets trapped in a room with a broken and disabled creature. He puts the phone up to the mouth of the creature so we can hear it crying like an infant and screaming for it’s mother. We don’t need to see the image of what’s happening, Grant’s horrified and panicky expression suffices. *SHIVER*
Tense and frightening, the story takes a screeching left turn into a more bizarre territory. Instead of being content with a straightforward zombie story, writer Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald decided to up the ante by creating a mythology similar to…
**SPOILERS BELOW IN INVISO-TEXT (highlight with cursor to read)**
Stephen King’s book CELL. A third character comes stumbling into the studio who hastily explains his findings to the others. This “doctor” has been observing the phenomenon (because it started at his clinic) and he has some totally wacky and off the wall theories that somehow turn out to be true. He figures out that it’s a virus transmitted not by contact, but by sound… and not just any sound, but the ENGLISH LANGUAGE! The signal reprograms the human brain to “suicide themselves” into someone (basically eat someone until it kills both victim and zombie). If the jihad zombie cannot find a victim in time, it self destructs by vomiting out its own organs.
What is alluded to but never said outright is that this is a foreign… or possibly domestic terror attack (remember, a lot of Canadians speak French!). It’s a plot to destroy all English-speaking countries. By whom? We aren’t sure, but there are some definite Middle Eastern tie-ins to the story. The live performance during the morning show is some sort of “Arab” parody. It’s ending with one of the infected performers acting loony is definitely a metaphorical hint as to who is behind the attack. Add to that the hero war veteran who turns on her colleagues as a metaphorical revenge for Middle Eastern enemies of the West and the hidden villain seems pretty clear… or does it?
Where the film really falls apart is when the remaining heroes try to figure out how to get out of this mess. Their solution, while pyrrhic, is poorly conceived and executed. It’s an interesting idea, but wrong for the film and hastily implemented. The film ends the same way as Cloverfield. Exactly. The only addition is that Grant gets to deliver a rapid fire anti-aggression speech (like Eric Bogosian at the end of Talk Radio) before he gets nuked.
I dug most of it, but with the sudden change in zombie mythology to make it a sloppy political statement, the movie didn’t work. If only they had told a straightforward zombie story like they started to in the beginning and kept that same suspenseful device throughout, this could’ve been a hit. Bluntly, they should have saved all of that interesting-yet-poorly-placed genre-bending political stuff for a different story. Simplicity should’ve been the key here.
Great performances though. Steven McHattie is a genre fave of mine and he definitely aspires to channel Don Imus (with the hat) and Eric Bogosian with his sarcasm and mania. The two female leads manage some tragic and harried moments endearing them in my book. For genre fans, I’m declaring this a must-see because so much is done right here. Just note that once the Hispanic guy with the glasses show up, it’s pretty much downhill.
Soon a similar film called Dead Air starring Bill “Choptop” Mosely and Corbin Bernsen might scratch the itch that Pontypool failed to reach. This one will get a straight to DVD release on Oct. 27th and it’s got its finger on the schlock button as opposed to Ponty’s high-quality indie feel. We shall see.
What’s next, zombies in space? Oh yeah, that was Jason X.
3 out of 5 stars.
Trailer for Pontypool below…
Let me in! I’m not infected! Scout’s honor!
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