Is your Halloween film rotation shaping up to be just more of the same films you watched the rest of the year? Can’t seem to make a play list that’s not just the latest hot films mixed in with the well worn classics? Maybe you need try a few of these for a spin in your home entertainment setup’s player of choice.
Seen your favorite zombie films 100 times or more already? Maybe it’s time to check out Pontypool.
There’s something about words that makes it impossible for skilled writers to resist playing with them. Sometimes it’s about creating a lyrical nature with them. Sometimes the goal is to create a vulgar rawness in them. No matter the artistic goal, the exploration of the combinations of words and phrases to convey a specific feeling or meaning is always about the same thing. It’s always about establishing and exercising the power of words.
Given this particular pursuit of many writers, it was only a matter of time before someone would try to take an established horror concept and wrap it around the idea of the power found in words. An attempt to do just that was made by Tony Burgess back in 1995. The result was the novel Pontypool Changes Everything.
The concept behind the book was actually an interesting one. It played with the idea of people becoming a form of zombie as with every other zombie story, but the carrier for the virus was the spoken word rather than the bite of the infected. Once infected by a word, a person would go on an insane rage spree, a never ending quest to feed on flesh.
The writing of the book was deliberately disjointed at times while being hallucinogenic at other times. It was dark, and it was not the easiest of reads due to the style of the prose. However, it was both a fascinating and entertaining book. So, of course, it caught the eyes of movie makers. It took a while though as the job of translating the book to film was no easy task.
Eventually though, the work of adapting the novel’s words to something suitable for the screen led to that most rare of all things. We got a film that was, even by the estimation of the author, better than the book it was based on. While somewhat substantially changed during its journey from page to screen, the core concepts of the book remained intact, and those combined with the performances in 2008’s Pontypool make it a must watch movie.
The movie opens in a way that quite effectively lays out what the story’s core is about. You start with a black screen and the voice of charismatic actor Stephen McHattie. What we get is a few moments of wordplay, the twisting and turning words in a playful manner that turns them sideways and inside out.
Our story proper begins with down on his luck DJ Grant Mazzy (the above mentioned McHattie) driving through a blizzard on his way into work at a radio station in the isolated, out of the way town of Pontypool, Ontario, Canada. While engaged in a cell phone conversation where Grants is chewing out and then firing his agent, we see the first of the victims of this strange new plague; although neither we nor Grant truly know what she is.
Once Grant arrives at the station, a makeshift studio located in the basement of a small church, we meet the remainder of our principle cast of characters. These are station manager Sydney Briar (played by Lisa Houle) and technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (played by Georgina Reilly.) For a little while, we get a peek into the boring but amusing life in the small town through the activities inside the radio station. We also get a look at the personality that’s taken Grant straight to the bottom of the available job opportunities open for him.
But then it begins to happen. Slowly the news trickles in, confused reports of rampaging mobs attacking buildings, cars, and people. The initial information is nonsensical; reports of people spouting gibberish words or phrases while acting like mindless pack animals or swarms of insects. One report has a mob of people caving in the wall of a doctor’s office by shoving their way through it. Other reports have them piling on top of vehicles, burying them under a quivering, squirming mass of humanity.
For the people in the radio station, the events seem unreal. Grant in particular seems unable to believe what’s being called in and reported. Then the zombies, for lack of a better name, arrive and surround the station. As the reality of their situation becomes clear to even the three of them, events take a turn as a crazed doctor (Hrant Alianak) arrives to complicate matters and one of their own turns into the thing threatening their lives. From that point on, the real fight for survival is on.
Now, if you’re coming into the film seeing the word “zombie” and expecting gore, gore, and more gore, you’re going to go away disappointed. Other than one scene where the gore is actually taking place in the station, we don’t actually see anything else that’s happening in the town. Once the film gets us into the church’s basement and the makeshift radio station, that’s where we stay. Everything that happens, unless it happens to our main characters, happens off screen and is only heard via call-ins to the station.
I’ve seen a lot of people initially pass up this movie because they read similar lines in reviews to that last one. The perception is that the film can’t be any good if all you’re doing is hearing people talk about the horrors unfolding throughout the town of Pontypool. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pontypool is an amazingly taut horror film. It’s just not a visceral, gore based or visuals based horror film. The tension and horror in the movie are expertly built through the skilled direction of Bruce McDonald and the intensity of the performances by Houle and (especially) McHattie. It’s absolutely worth finding and watching.
Pontypool as a movie is the best version of the story available, but it’s only one of three versions out there. There’s also the previously mentioned book, but there’s also an audio version (included on the DVD) made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that’s largely an edited version of the film’s audio with alternate dialogue segments and a completely different last act and ending.
If you’re looking for a different take on the zombie film or simply a genuinely chilling horror film to watch in the run-up to Halloween, it’s hard to go wrong with Pontypool. Pontypool can be purchased as a standalone DVD through most retailers, but my recommendation is to go after a 4 DVD set called Zombies! 4 Film Feature. For under $20 you get Pontypool along with Norway’s Nazi zombie horror/comedy Dead Snow, Glenn McQuaid’s often overlooked horror/comedy gem I Sell the Dead, and the British zombie horror/comedy Doghouse.
Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.