Thriller Thursday - Pontypool
10 years ago, ‘yeet’ didn’t exist. Even now as I’m typing this, Microsoft word is telling me that ‘yeet’ isn’t a real word either.
But when I use the word…you know what I’m saying.
Now, sure, you can answer this by saying that ‘yeet’ is following the way of all slang, used by speakers of a certain language until it is formally recognized by the folks at Miriam-Webster…but by then, we’ve all moved on to another slang word. And the process starts all over again.
And that’s just on the large scale. There is, of course, regional slang. Take the ‘Yinzers’ of Western Pennsylvania…”yinz” being their version of a plural “you” or “you-all”. There’s an entire mini dialect there that has passed throughout the region. Are you planning on tidying up a certain room? You’d be said to be “redding up the room”, and so forth.
Bear with me as I bludgeon the point…but as you hopefully can see here, language is in some ways a viral thing. And on some level, we know it. Think about it: videos (either on YouTube or TikTok) go viral, as do Tweets. So it’s kind of an amazing thing, dare I say even bordering on prescient, that back in 2009, we had an entry in the Zombie genre that would take this very track, asking the question ‘what if the zombie virus was an infected language?’ Join us as we take a look at a very overlooked gem that is only just now starting to get some love in the horror community: Pontypool.
Shock Jock Grant Mazzy finds his career spiraling the drain, exiled to a rural Ontario radio station that’s more concerned with school closings and church musicals than riling up the citizenry. But an encounter with a babbling woman in the middle of a snowstorm on his way in to work is just the tip of the iceberg as the citizens of Pontypool turn into a riotous mob and then…into something more. In the meantime, Mazzy and his producer are forced to confront a nearly impossible feat for anyone working in talk radio: Shut up or DIE.
Within its opening monologue, both Stephen McHattie’s voice and Bruce McDonald’s direction have you so entranced that you’re not even going to notice that this is one claustrophobic film until it’s too late and you’re already feeling the effects of being boxed in. Yes, the vast majority of the film takes place inside the radio station with the entire outbreak taking place off-screen, but McDonald’s direction doesn’t let us feel like we’re missing anything. We’re so tied to our characters reaching out for any news in the chaos that it fits in the modern motifs of searching news stations for the latest news on say a newly started war or a riot/insurrection…or “doomscrolling” twitter, surfing YouTube or TikTok for eyewitness videos and so forth. Maybe even more so than in 2009, the viewer knows all too well what this is like.
The script by Tony Burgess, adapting his own book: Pontypool Changes Everything, is tight, wasting very little time in establishing the scenario and keeping every scene in the film relevant. Even the Lawrence of Arabia musical scene helps to establish just how subtly events are spiraling out of our protagonists’ favor. And while, yes, Burgess and McDonald are both Canadian and as such it only makes sense to set the story there, it’s also such an incredibly smart move to do so, as the viewer will see by the end of the film. [I wanna say more, but that’d fall into Spoiler territory. And while it is a 13-year-old film, well, it’s an underappreciated 13-year-old film, so not too many eyes have fallen on it for me to play the “you should’ve seen this by now” card. – Ed.]
Even with a fantastic claustrophobic atmosphere and very smart script, Pontypool could have fallen apart depending on who was cast…so thank goodness we have Stephen McHattie in the lead role of Grant Mazzy and his wife Lisa Houle as producer Sydney Briar. Starting off with McHattie, if you haven’t come across at least a small portion of his work, you’re likely living under a rock. That’s not to say that you should know it’s him, mind you, as he’s the perfect ‘that guy’…but for me, I’ve seen him as the original Nite Own in Watchmen or The Shade in the animated Justice League, but his work covers a vast swathe of TV and film. He certainly has the perfect voice for a DJ or for talk radio though, as he displays extremely well as sort of a Don Imus knock-off. While I don’t know where the idea originated, whether it was the director, the actors themselves or the casting director, someone deserves a big old cookie for casting McHattie’s actual wife, Houle, in the role of Sydney. The chemistry between the two and the interplay between McHattie’s Shock Jock and Houle’s small-town focused producer simply doesn’t miss a beat. The antagonism at times is palpable, just as much as their unified front at the end. No matter which way you split it, it’s damn fine acting, even if it does rely on a pre-existing relationship. Sure, some of you might consider it a cheat, but in the fast world of low budget horror movies where shooting days a minimal and rehearsal time even less, using such a crutch actually serves to make the entire project better and I can think of no better example than here.
A tip of the wide-brimmed Mazzy hat also has to go to Georgina Reilly as Afghanistan veteran Laurel-Ann Drummond who, as you’d expect, ends up being the victim that finally gets both the main characters and the audience to understand how real this situation is and what the stakes are. There’s one of these in every zombie movie and the characters usually fall in one of two camps: ‘when can we get rid of this schmuck?’ or ‘AAWWWWW…MAAAAAAAAN, that SUCKS’, and fortunately Reilly’s performance puts us squarely in the second camp, even when she goes a little bit Marcy from Peanuts in referring to Sydney as ‘Sir’ when the shit really starts to hit the fan.
Everything I’ve listed above earns Pontypool our highest Hypno Cat rating. This is a refreshing take on the zombie genre from a surprisingly early phase of the zombie film resurgence that we continue to see even into current day. In revisiting the film though, there’s almost a prescient quality to it that I mentioned in the opening of this review. Is it possible that Pontypool was warning us of the possibility of the Q phenomenon? How conspiracy theories, sure, present back then and even further back, could now spread just as quickly as a flu outbreak? And possibly be just as dangerous? The times we find ourselves in now lend Pontypool an even additional poignance that it didn’t have back then and make it even more relevant than I imagine McDonald and Burgess could have ever thought when making this film. So in this day of viral videos, misinformation tweets, talk radio and podcasts, recognize that the vectors we have for a language that may indeed be infected are vast…and we are vulnerable. Still question that? Unfortunately, there are no shortage of examples in the modern world. Burgess nailed it in the title of the original book: Pontypool Changes Everything. It did. It has. And it’s incumbent on you as a horror fan to track this one down immediately, if for no other reason that the surface entertainment value.
But if you want to look into the Abyss…well, that’s here for you too.