Monday, May 23, 2011

Bad Words: A Review of Pontypool

Ok folks, I have to rant for a minute before I get into this review. It seems that everyone has forgotten the definition of "zombie." I have heard many reviews of a movie from 2009 called Pontypool, and almost all of them described it as “putting a new twist on the zombie genre.” Therefore, when I went to watch it last night, I was expecting, oh, I dunno… zombies! Let me clue all of you in on a little something here…INFECTED LIVE HUMANS ARE NOT ZOMBIES!!! Zombies are the undead. If the person isn’t dead, and they’re just infected with something that makes them violent or cannibalistic or whatever, that person is a plague victim. That person is not a zombie. The only way a zombie can be living is if it is a voodoo zombie, but those have been absent from film for a few years now. Zombies are THE LIVING DEAD. Get that straight folks. 28 Days/Weeks Later is not a zombie movie. The Crazies is not a zombie movie. REC is not a zombie movie. Pontypool is not a zombie movie either. Period. End of story.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Pontypool has some very good things going for it. First and foremost, I give it major points for doing something that, sadly, is incredibly rare not just in horror, but in movies in general these days. It presents a fresh, new idea. It also makes the most out of its low budget and features some very good acting. It does, however, fall into the trap of giving us a great premise and doing nothing with it. The central concept is barely explained and makes very little sense. It’s a shame, because it is truly an intriguing idea.

Grant Mazzy, a talk radio personality who has been fired from his big city gig, is currently manning the mic at a small station in a small town, Pontypool. One day, in the middle of the local obits, school closings, and check ins from the “sunshine chopper” reports start coming into the station of people acting strangely and violently. The town is being quarantined. The BBC have picked up the story. Mazzy and his producers, Sydney and Laurel Ann, are holed up in the studio trying to piece the story together from reports coming in, when a doctor appears and informs them that the disease is spreading verbally. Certain words and phrases are causing people to become confused and murderous. Should they stay on the air, hoping to be rescued and maybe help people by getting the story out, or are they transmitting the disease over the airwaves themselves?

The first half of this flick is great. Downright gripping. Stephen McHattie is awesome as Mazzy. His gruff voice is perfect for the character. His role is similar to Adrienne Barbeau’s in The Fog; the DJ that carries on while the town falls apart around them. Lisa Houle and Georgianna Reilly are also excellent in the roles of the two ladies keeping the show on the air. Director Bruce McDonald crafts a brilliantly executed slow burn, keeping the three characters in an isolated, claustrophobic location. Their only link to the carnage going on around them is those calling the station. The actors portraying these callers do some great voice work. This “small cast, one location” approach is a very smart use of a low budget. Then the doctor comes into the station in a way that defies any logic, and the film goes straight to hell. He explains at length what we’ve already gathered, the whole language/virus thing. Then they spend the rest of the movie either sitting in silence waiting for the infected to go away, babbling incoherently, or making a mess of the brilliant premise by saying things like “kiss is kill” and “we have to learn to not understand.”

Like I said, the central idea of the virus being spread through the use of language, which to the best of my knowledge was first espoused by William Burroughs, may not be completely original, but it is the first time I have seen it as the central idea of a horror flick. This idea could have been explored much better however. They state that this is what is happening, but never clearly explain exactly why or how. The particulars of the disease are kept extremely vague. What they do tell us sounds like a drunken argument between majors in linguistics and philosophy. It devolves into pretension; basically feeling like the filmmakers had a good idea, so they didn’t feel they had to expand on it enough to drive an entire movie. They seem to be so impressed by how profound they think they are being that they forget to continue building a narrative around the idea. The mind numbing final scene features Mazzy and Sydney spouting some of the dumbest pseudo intellectual crap you’ve ever heard, and the very end is an incredible cop out.

I know there are some people who will say “you didn’t like it because there wasn’t much action.” On the contrary, the first half of the film, before what action there was even started, was the best part. The scene of Laurel Ann trying to break into the sound booth is great too, by the way. Others, probably the art house “intellectuals” who can’t tell the difference between pretentious pontification and sophisticated storytelling, will say “You just didn’t get it.” I do. I get where they were going, but they didn’t really explain the premise beyond “terms of endearment and baby talk make people forget how to speak and decide to kill.” Why and how this happens could have been really interesting. Also, a lot more could have been done with the whole mass communication aspect. It takes place in a radio station after all.

Due to the fact that this is “cerebral horror” and that he’s Canadian, Bruce McDonald has drawn comparisons to David Cronenberg. This is giving him way too much credit. In Cronenberg’s films, the narrative is driven by a bizarre, thought provoking, metaphoric premise. In Ponypool, the narrative crumbles under the weight of such a premise. This is nowhere near as good a movie as many people seem to think it is, but it’s not bad either. It is worth watching for the interesting idea, the three great performances, the great first half, and the couple of interesting moments towards the end. It’s just not nearly as smart as it thinks it is. One severed thumb up. Nathan says check it out.


Meghann said...

THANK YOU! The term "zombie" is thrown around a little too freely these days. This seems like the type of film that leaves you to your imagination. Kind of like the 1938 radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds". Is that close in relation, Nate?

SonOfCelluloid said...

Exactly. I was thinking as I watched it that if they still existed, this would have made a great radio drama. The War of the Worlds comparison is right on.

Cash Wampum said...

I just watched this one tonight. Very Canadian. I can't remember the last time I heard OPP and en francais in a clearly Ontario thriller. It kinda hits home and was a treat to watch.

Not sure if I buy the whole outbreak by English bit though. What were the writers trying to convey? I know in most of Quebec you can be fined for having English out in the open but the whole rest of the country has to have EVERYTHING in both Enlgish and French, its the law. They may be our country's two national languages but they certainly don't get a long.

I'm certain this is the overtone but to what extent? I have no idea. All I know is I liked the performances. There was some good suspense. Listening to Ken describe the carnage over the phone was better than showing it. I love a good claustrophobic movie.

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