Summary: Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a talk radio shock-jock looking to create a little on-air edge, until he is given more than he’d bargained for when a sinister and mysterious virus of sorts spreads and wreaks unknowable, inexplicable havoc throughout their previously quaint Ontario town.
My horror-loving co-worker recommended this film to me and I was instantly intrigued by the premise, then remembered that it was also one of the items we’d offered in our #HAElloween giveaway back in October! So I knew it was time to check it out. To me, it sounded like it’d be a glorified, live-action episode of Welcome to Night Vale— the popular comedy podcast of a public radio program in a fictional small town where the supernatural, paranormal, and extra-terrestrial are all made banal, mundane, and ordinary. Instead, the film feels more like if Talk Radio (1988) were set amidst a zombie apocalypse—a zombie apocalypse that we do not actually see unfold so much as hear. This is not, after all, a particularly visual horror movie; rather, like the medium of radio itself, the horror of this film is mostly based in sounds, noises and especially words.
As eyewitnesses to the strange and violent events of the sudden plague call in to the radio station one-by-one, each account sounding more scared and ominous than the last, tension and claustrophobia mount. We only know as much as host Mazzy, producer Sydney (Lisa Houle), and assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) know, and they only know as much as can be discerned from the garbled gibberish and hysteria coming through the phone lines. It’s particularly ominous when a BBC correspondent calls in wanting an update they do not have to offer, and even more so when an announcement spoken in French cuts through the broadcast entirely. The abrupt announcement warns people to stay away from loved ones, the usage of terms of endearment, the English language, and not to translate the message (which, of course, they do).
Besides the slow burn, auditory approach to horror, I also loved Grant Mazzy’s almost-unwavering, snarky cynicism (emphasis on “almost”) which contributes to the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s the way McHattie imbues this otherwise obnoxious character with a sense of humanity and genuine, ever-fluctuating levels of fear that makes him both sympathetic and still totally, outlandishly entertaining. The whole film is pretty outlandish anyway— as the victims infringe on the claustrophobic serenity of the sound booth, the nature of the virus is slowly but surely revealed. Every revelation is just a little bit crazier than the one that came before, amounting to one really interesting, ambitious concept.
Pontypool is quite unlike any zombie movie that’s come before; this is an outbreak that is impeccably, thematically well-suited to the radio station setting, which is all I’ll say so as to avoid spoilers. But, when you do come to understand the virus and how it is spread, you’ll either think it’s absolutely brilliant or maybe just a little too silly. Ultimately, I loved the idea, and the really campy, entertaining execution of that idea, enough to not care that maybe it all was a bit silly. My initial mistake was trying to make the big reveals all “mean” something, until I realized that this film isn’t necessarily going for that— it doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything profound or metaphorical to be great.
I realized instead that the unconventional approach to a zombie-esque thriller—a low-budget, psychological approach in which the outbreak is attributed to something fittingly cerebral, rather than the more visceral, biological approach we’re all used to— is worthy of our respect and attention. Taking a cue perhaps from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama back in 1938, Pontypool induces our simultaneous dread and intrigue by relying on what we hear rather than what we see. It considers the role of radio and words themselves in spreading, investigating, and dealing with terror, even if it does so in a fairly playful, not-at-all heavy-handed way; one of the best lines in the entire movie is Grant’s pleading question, “Do we really want to provide a genocide with elevator music?” Refreshing, suspenseful and unabashedly fun, I enjoyed this movie even more than I thought I would. So, if Pontypool hasn’t made it onto your frequency yet, I highly suggest you turn the dial and tune in, which is just my corny little radio analogy for: go stream it on Netflix, you’ll be glad you did.