On the seventeenth day of Halloween, a linguistics nerd gave to me: Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2008)
Today I offer up to you a brilliantly bizarre film, which is an incredibly unique take on zombieism. It was one of the first films I ever watched on Netflix, and every time I re-watch it I notice more and more about it. Pontypool is a slow-burn powerhouse of a conceptual zombie film. It’s unsettling in the way every good horror film should be, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Former major radio personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has found himself in a dead-end job, broadcasting from the basement of a church in the tiny, wintry town of Pontypool. Struggling to come up with stories in the midst of a massive snowstorm, Mazzy and his two crew members Syndey (Lisa Houle) and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) suddenly find that a story is making its way to them.
But then, something’s always about to happen.
Pontypool is a well-crafted horror film that has mastered the “slow-burn”. This movie drips with tension. The opening sets the whole tone: it’s ominous, slow, and creeping. There are so many little details scattered throughout the film that help create this growing wave of suspense, from the sound of the kettle wailing, to the constant obituaries on the radio.
The palette is subdued and under saturated, as though there is a gray wash over everything. This movie also takes place in the basement of a church, and the claustrophobia and stuffiness is overwhelming.
While there’s plenty of on-screen action in the last act, the first two thirds thrive on off-screen action. Grant and his crew have access to all of the town from their tiny hub: they have police radio, their outside callers and reporters, all who are piping in information about the end of the world. There’s something undeniably bone-chilling about hearing someone scream through a telephone, only able to imagine what is happening to them. The power of suggestion is just that: a power.
The prioritizing of sound over visuals isn’t terribly common in horror, where gore and visual scare tends to reign supreme. There is a fair amount gore in Pontypool, but it’s almost tasteful in comparison to other zombie movies. While this movie ups the ante big-time in the last act, the gore and the action is truly the climax of a crescendo of tension, which has been steadily building since the opening.
These walkers are different from anything you’ve ever seen before
These zombies are more rabid than decay-y, but they’re scary in an a totally different way: they repeat words like angry echoes, and have a ferocity to them that is chilling. The concept of this virus- it’s words that are infected- blew my socks straight off the first time I watched Pontypool. While it’s a very conceptual vision of a disease that isn’t necessarily biologically plausible, it’s fascinating. It’s very lofty looking on paper, but the concept is strongly grounded by the fact that Pontypool is one hell of a horror movie. While there’s a lot to analyze and discuss with regards to the interpretations of language as a disease (how humans are affected by what they hear and how language is used, etc.) I’ll let you and your watching buddies dig into that.
(PS if you’re an IB kid and need something to do a TOK paper on, this movie is IT.)
Suffice it to say, it’s an incredibly unique model for a disease, that allows it to travel in ways traditional bugs can’t. It’s food for thought, but also terrifying.
Some thoughts as always
Things to be aware of: gore, violence against children. Apparently it’s legally required for every zombie movie to show a zombie child being killed
The one thing that’s “eh” is the Lawrence of Arabia “cast” that Mazzy has to interview for a fluff piece. They’re a bunch of folks in brownface (on top of an impersonation of Osama bin Laden) who are supposed to be intentionally offensive. Pontypool tries to use them as evidence of just how much of a backwards/small town Pontypool is, whereas the big-shot Mazzy is used to more exciting interviews. I get where they were going with this, but like still….yikes.
But otherwise this movie is horror gold
Seriously, this movie is incredibly made and conceptually brilliant. If you’re looking for something a little different than your standard zombie fare, pop this in. Particularly if you like linguistics.
Also if you can explain the post-credits scene, please let me know. I’ve got literally no some theories and I’d like some input.
(Pontypool is also apparently based on a book, so if you’ve read it and have some thoughts, please share!)
Featured image source: http://www.joblo.com/movie-posters/2009/pontypool