Thursday, September 11, 2008


(Canada, 2008)
Written by: Tony Burgess
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak

It's been bemoaned that the art of conversation is dead, but I've long maintained that people talk too damn much. Every time I step out, I feel like I'm the paranoid wreck in the "Tell Tale Heart" under constant auditory assault from all directions-- incessant chirping behind me at movies and concerts, in lineups and packed elevators, and now, with the innovation of the cellphone, it's become a full-fledged pandemic. These days, when you see a guy walking down the street talking to himself, you have to pause to consider: stark raving loon, or merely another Bluetooth poseur? That's why I knew I was going to love Bruce McDonald's first horror film when I was handed the promotional postcard bearing the tag line: "Shut Up, Or Die".

Just when you think you've had your fill of flesh-eating and "aim for the head" set pieces, novelist/screenwriter Tony Burgess figures out a fresh spin on the red-eyed, slobbering horde. This taut, clever adaptation of his novel "Pontypool Changes Everything" proposes: what if the zombie virus didn't come from a Venus probe, or a rampant virus, or a supernatural curse--what if it was spread by language?

Grant Mazzy (McHattie) was once the Canadian Don Imus (right down to the cowboy hat), until his abrasive wit and divining rod for controversy got him demoted to the guy who reads the obituaries, weather, and school closings in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. CLSY-AM, aka "The Beacon" broadcasts out of a former church basement and might not offer the audience base of a big city like Toronto, but it provides Mazzy with a forum for his cynical observations and mocking contempt for his new digs--much to the chagrin of his oh-so-patient producer Sydney (Houle) and engineer Laurel Ann (Reilly). It's Valentine's Day, but Mazzy expects a typical mind-numbing shift until he's accosted by a deranged woman on his way to the station.

Over the course of the broadcast, reports come in of increasingly strange local activity: an OPP standoff with some unruly ice fisherman results in gunfire, death, and loss of limbs for both sides. A violent mob attacks a psychiatrist's practice. Mazzy dismisses it all one big stunt, until he's contacted by the BBC for his take from Ground Zero (they initially think it's got something to do with French Separatists--what other conflicts could erupt in peaceable Canada?). Mazzy can decipher only a single common element amongst the reports: the attackers seem to be speaking gibberish, repeating the same unintelligible mumbo-jumbo over and over...

As the community unravels, the Beacon proves to be a safe stronghold from the madness outside, and Mazzy is determined to stay on the air. But they get an unexpected visitor in the form of psychiatrist Dr. Mendez (Alianak), who escaped the seige on his office. He's concocted a theory that languages are a form of benign parasite in the brain--one that's somehow become malignant. The first words to be infected are benign terms of endearment— "sweetheart", "honey", "baby" (it is Valentine's Day, remember?)--could changing the meaning of commonly-used words stop the outbreak? A considerable challenge--considering the hordes have gathered at the door and the virus has now infected the station...

Godard once opined that all you need for a movie is "a girl" and "a gun". While Jean-Luc was definitely onto something, substitute "ghoul" for "girl" (but keep the gun) and I'm putty in a filmmaker's hand. I've seen and adored just about anything that pits man against the rise of a new (often cannibalistic) world order --admittedly with varying degrees of "adore", mind you (sorry, Paul W.S. Anderson)--from my first encounter Romero's seminal Pittsburgh allegories as an underage viewer to Fulci's Italian maggot-fests during my high school years to Boyle's UK-based apocalypses as a so-called mature adult--seems as long as mankind invents new things to screw up, the zombie will remain relevant. Pontypools zombies are not the undead--they're closer to the "Rage" infected in 28 Days/Weeks Later--but they're out to eliminate us, one syllable at a time...

A decade in the planning, Pontypool began with an offer from the CBC to create a radio drama. McDonald wanted to pay homage to Orson Welles' infamous 1941 War Of The Worlds broadcast, using Burgess' novel as a springboard. Burgess kept his novel's hook but changed the lead character to a radio announcer--an occupation and location ideally suited to the linguistics angle. When that fell through, McDonald realized the confined location and small ensemble would be perfect for an inexpensive, horror film. Financing was raised independently (no help from the CBC there) and the film was shot in Stayner, Ontario by McDonald's regular DOP Mirolsaw Baszak on the Red One HD hard drive camera system.

The press notes pay lip service to the likes of Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky and Carlos Castaneda, and while I won't deny the film its literary and philosophical cred, Pontypool reminded me a lot of John Carpenter's underrated Prince Of Darkness, which came and went to audience and critical indifference in 1987. It, too, was a high-minded, character-based and dialogue-driven thriller that posited questions of religious faith, alternative history, and quantum physics against a "trapped in a church" yarn featuring a mathematically-replicating evil (and a Satanic legion lead by a zombified Alice Cooper).

Best known for brief-but-memorable character turns in Seinfeld, A History of Violence, and 300, Canadian journeyman actor Stephen McHattie is superb in a rare lead role that requires him to carry a good part of the entire enterprise in close-up. His laconic charisma and leathery drawl are the film's chief strengths, and McDonald is wise to let the staging and direction serve what should be a career-making performance (he deserves a place amongst the esteemed company of Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio and David Strathairn in Good Night And Good Luck). Little Mosque On The Prairies Alianak has fun overacting as the frenzied academic-who-figures-it-all out--a clearly stylized touch that has polarized some viewers but I thought worked in the spirit of McDonald and Burgess' arch concept.

Where McDonald's past films like Highway 61 and Hardcore Logo were more sprawling and breezily absurdist affairs, Pontypool shows a remarkable gift for maintaining tension in a single location (it shares a certain kinship with Vincenzo Natali's one-room s.f. thriller Cube), mining horror and humour from a largely unseen menace (there are a handful of effectively utilized gags from the effects house Mr. X)--the director must've spent at least some of his formative years studing the pros...or he's a very quick learn. Too bad the intensity and breathless pacing of the second act is diluted by a hurried, too-convenient climax (but stay tuned for the truly bizarre end-of-credits coda!).

Heady themes won't secure an audience, of course: some of Canada's better recent genre films--Fido, the aforementioned Cube--have failed to connect with homegrown moviegoers and have found warmer reception overseas. It'd be a shame if Pontypool was met with all the enthusiasm of another sequel to The Gate (we'll see when it's finally released next spring), but considering its central conceit--the English tongue as epidemic--McDonald could well score his first major hit in Quebec...

©Robert J. Lewis 2008