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Pontypool

September 28, 2009

There’s a grand tradition of the movies doing the radio. That is to say, of using the radio to provide a different slant on action that might otherwise be obvious or hackneyed. Radio is blind, it relies on the spoken word rather than the visual, and so the dynamic is different. Films about radio are different still, and they are curios to be savoured, when done with intelligence.

I’ve always liked Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, for instance. It’s a sly, manipulative, wordy, entertaining and at times fanciful retelling of events inspired by the death of Alan Berg in 1984 (Berg was radio talk show host in Denver, Colorado known for rather flamboyantly expressed liberal views and for taking on people who disagreed with him; he was shot and killed at home by members of a white nationalist group called The Order). Talk Radio features a stonking performance by Eric Bogosian (“Tell me something I-I’m curious. How do you dial a phone with a straitjacket on?”) who weaves and dances and gurns all over the place, because Stone – for once – has to sit the fuck down and just point his camera.

Good Morning, Vietnam is pretty much same ball park, of course. Big issues, simple camera, lots of words, powerful performance. Job done.

So, aware that Pontypool was a movie based in a radio station, I was expecting something of the same order. And, yes, you do get that, but there is something entirely unexpected here thrown in with everything else.

It starts impressively; a single blue sound wave stretching across a black screen, crinkling, as our host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) tells a local story about a cat gone missing. They expand, the wave and the story, as voices get bigger and opinions come into it. It’s a hell of a hook, and McHattie has a hell of a voice, grizzled and world-weary, it betrays his roots as a one-time big-hitter sent in disgrace to the backwaters of rural Canada. The next scene sees Mazzy at a stop light in the early morning dark on his way to work, hindered by a snow storm and an overwhelming desire to turn round and go back from where he came. This tells you a lot about him in very simple gestures.

Suddenly, and with immense creepiness, he is torn from his self-pity by a woman outside the car. Dressed elegantly, and certainly not fit for the weather, she stares in at him and mouths something. By the time he has reached for the window control she has faded into the gloom. Nice start.

A little spooked, Mazzey arrives at the station where his put-upon team, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) are rolling their eyes at the errant jock’s lateness. As he settles in behind the booth he is soon waxing lyrical about local issues and global warming, and ignoring producer Sydney’s requests to take it down a notch. He’s pretty entertaining, it must be said, with a Charlie Bronson much-lived-in quality to his face and voice, and a great deal of seen-it-all-before trailer park wisdom, he rolls along, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, cheerfully ignoring the many exhortations to him to keep it civil.

Sydney and Laurel Ann (Reilly is excellent) contribute to an ambience that seems natural and established, and so it is more than a little poignant when the trio are shocked by reports coming in (mostly from their travelling weather man) that large scale disturbances are happening all over the local area.

These disruptions increase in regularity, and intensity. It is all the more shocking because we are trapped in the radio station, and often inside Mazzey’s booth, the only access we have to the chaos being the sound from outside. A chaos that seems to have them, and their tiny radio station as its epicentre. As their external reporter’s bulletins begin to descend into insane babble, and then Laurel Ann starts to speak erratically, Mazzey and Sydney realise that whatever is affecting the population, is being communicated by…communication.

Do they tell the world and risk spreading the malaise, or keep quiet?

Pontypool is an unusual slant on the horror thriller. It is filled with dialogue, and has just a handful of action spikes, all coming late on. Rather like Rio Bravo, there is a lot of wordy waiting around, and a sudden shocking last few minutes. Sometimes daring to walk up to pure silliness before facing it down with a dose of tension or a splash of fierce exposition, it is never less than entertaining and as thoughtfully executed as you could hope for.

Spread the word.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 29, 2009 7:11 pm

    Thanks. That sounds marvellous, and I’d not heard of it at all. One to look out for.

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