Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pontypool

31 Days of Horror
I went into Pontypool with no real knowledge or expectations.  I saw this promo poster on Netflix, noticed that it was one of the few horror movies they thought I would give a decent rating to, and added it to my Instant Queue.  I didn't know what it was about, aside from the vague notion of it being a horror movie.  Judging from the backwards "N" in the title, I assumed there would be some sort of connection to Eastern Europe (there isn't).  Heck, I didn't even know what a Pontypool was (it's the name of a town in Wales and also, in this case, in Ontario).  And you know what?  I'm glad I went in with that little knowledge. 

Oh, and if you know a little bit about this movie, but haven't watched it yet, do not go in thinking this is a zombie movie.  Just...don't.  If you want Pontypool to conform to zombie movie rules, you're going to be in for a long, uneventful movie.

Pontypool begins on a cold, dark Valentine's Day morning, as DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives to work in near-blizzard conditions.  Until recently, he was an infamous shock jock on a major radio station, but his on-air choices got him fired, which led to his current gig, working the morning desk for a rural radio station.  On his way to work, a woman smacked his passenger side window as Mazzy was stopped at a light.  She appeared to be babbling something, but when Mazzy rolled down his window, she backed away, into the darkness, and all he could hear was her voice repeating his question, "Do you need help?"  Mazzy drives on, and arrives at work for another day of on-air banality.  On the plus side, his is one of the few jobs where nobody bats an eye to drinking Glenfiddich at 6AM at work.
Quick, pick out the drunk in this group!
This is a real nickel-and-dime operation.  There is one producer, Sydney (Lisa Houle), and one assistant, Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly), and they broadcast from the basement of a church.  Their traffic and weather helicopter reporter is actually just a guy in a car, who parks on a hill to get his eagle eye view.  The morning is proceeding as usual, with Mazzy chomping at the bit to be controversial, while Sydney does her best to rein him in and tell local news.
The look of someone who wants their talent to just stick to the damn script
Something odd happens when Ken, the "helicopter" reporter, calls in.  Instead of his typical generalities about the weather (complete with helicopter sound effects), Ken sees a crowd gathering outside the medical practice of a Doctor Mendez (Hrant Alianak) and...they appear to be trying to break down the door, but...the door's broken and they're streaming in, trampling people in the process and...why did the back wall just explode?!?  Mazzy and co. don't really know what to make of all this; it's not being reported by anyone else, and it's happening barely three miles away from them.  Before Ken can elaborate, he says something about vehicles blockading the streets before being cut off.
I know, Mazzy, I know.  I cared deeply about Ken, who is never onscreen, too
So, what do you do if you're a three-person radio team, right by the action?  You try to stay on the air while you confirm that stuff, right?  So, that's what they do, with Mazzy interviewing some folks from a local musical production of Lawrence of Arabia, while Sydney and Laurel-Ann dig frantically for some facts.  But there are none.  Even worse, they're the primary news source for this story --- BBC1 calls them for clarification!  So what is going on here?  Laurel-Ann starts having difficulty speaking, and then starts mimicking anything she hears, from words or phrases to a tea kettle's whistle.  And she will stop at nothing to reach the source of the sound, which quickly leads her from this state:
To which you would react, "Are you alright?  You're bleeding!"
to this state:
To which you would react with blunt force trauma to her head
...in a matter of minutes.  But...why?  And how?  The answer, basically, boils down to this: words. 

There is not a whole lot of action in Pontypool, so the acting carries a heavy burden.  Stephen McHattie managed to be a fairly interesting lead.  His character was obviously a jerk --- anyone who makes a living by being controversial is --- but his frustrations were also easy to identify with.
Even this scene worked
Lisa Houle was also solid as his producer.  Her point of view was just as understandable, and her character made reasonable choices, while remaining pretty likable.  I also thought Georgina Reilly was fine in her substantially smaller role; since she becomes a victim of whatever is going on, we don't get to see her use a lot of different emotions, but she was a cute, likable twentysomething for the first half of this movie.  In fact, all the acting (which adds up to four or five small speaking roles and some people walking around like zombies) was pretty good.

Pontypool was directed by Bruce McDonald, who is definitely not one of The Kids in the Hall, despite being Canadian, being named "Bruce" and having a last name that begins with "Mc-".  The screenplay was written by Tony Burgess, who also wrote the book that this is based on.  Pontypool is a great example of a small-budget movie that wants to provide scares through building tension.  There is almost no violence or gore, and we never get a look at what is happening outside the studio.  Instead, McDonald takes advantage of his characters' ignorance and builds the suspense.  It's almost like he wanted to make a movie about people responding to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast; the characters can't believe what they're hearing, but it seems frighteningly real to them at the same time.  For a movie that was filmed in basically three rooms, with a tiny  budget, I thought McDonald did an impressive job with the material.  As for that material, Burgess wrote a script full of dread, but he also peppered it with enough dark humor to keep it from dragging.  Lawrence of Arabia as a musical?  That's such an awesomely bad idea, I'm glad it happens in a movie like this.  The writing is occasionally funny like that, but not often enough for a movie with so little physical action.  I suppose you could take the innovations Burgess made on an existing horror sub-genre (which I'll talk about more in a bit) as being symbolic of something (and since he wrote the book, as well, I'm sure you're right), but doing so makes this a lot more pretentious than it is on the surface, which is completely unnecessary, and just thinking about it makes me like this movie less.
Like this post-credits scene.  Seriously, what the hell was that?

What makes Pontypool stand out to me is the fact that it makes every character fairly likable and it does a great job at building a sense of claustrophobic dread.  It's not action-packed.  It's not gory.  Hell, even one of the major plot points seems to keep the audience from the only action they've seen so far.
Oh, good, a radio show where they don't talk.  That sounds...awesome?
But it works surprisingly well.  I kept expecting the movie to take a turn when the characters inevitably went outside and finally saw what was going on (or not going on, if it was all a hoax), but they never get to that point, and it doesn't feel contrived.  I think that's what I like best about Pontypool: it feels right.  It's crazy enough to be a horror movie, but plausible enough to feel true.

Now, I'm not arguing that Pontypool is a flawless gem, but it is under-appreciated.  The core mechanism causing all the trouble in this story is unusual, which is nice, but also problematic when you think about it.  But that's not why other people seem to have a problem with it, for some reason.  When I was scouring the interwebs for images of this movie, I stumbled across a few movie reviews.  I never read reviews before writing mine, but kept a few links open to check out after I finished my review, so see what my interweb brethren had to say.  For the most part, the negative comments focused on the slow pace and what a crappy zombie movie it is.  As for the slow pace, that's a valid point, but I think the sacrifice of pacing for tension and mood was worth the cost.  As for the zombie thing, it's better if you don't think of this as a zombie movie.  If you think about Pontypool as a zombie movie (and they never use the term "zombie" in this film), you're going to focus on the many differences between this and a typical zombie movie, and you're going to try to examine why they are different.  Are the filmmakers making a statement about what is truly poisonous in society?  What does the cause say about these characters, given their chosen profession?  Is this just a dig at the English language from a bunch of snooty French-Canadians?  In order, it doesn't matter, that's at least a mildly interesting question, and undoubtedly.  If you take it at face value, Pontypool is a clever and sometimes darkly humorous survival movie that (admittedly) plays with the conventions of zombie flicks.  If you take it at face value, it's smart and tension-filled.  With all the awful horror movies out there, what more do you need?

1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree with you. This is a zombie film that isn't for everyone. It brings a unique, and needed, concept to the horror genre, but doesn't bring the expected carnage. But I think that's ok. I like it when a horror movie comes along that feels real with characters that have depth. I've had enough of early 80's stereotypical characters in grind-house horror flicks.
    I also got the chance to review this film on my new blog. I'm just getting started and would love some feedback from a critic. Check it out if you can.

    http://horrormoviemedication.blogspot.com/2013/02/pontypool-breath-breath-breath-breath.html

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