Halloween Horror: Pontypool (2008)

From now until Halloween, the Three Brothers will be highlighting various horror films in an effort to get into the spirit of the season. It's also an effort to catch up on key films in a genre often overlooked in critical discourse.

For the first 45 minutes of Pontypool, I was rapt. A zombie movie told from an audio perspective is fascinating. Instead of having the main characters in the midst of the action, Pontypool told its story through second-hand information. Our heroes were relaying what they heard from people actually in the heat of things. All we had was them giving us vague facts about something unspeakably awful happening outside, something they were powerless to affect. The visual tone and Stephen McHattie’s commanding voice were all that were needed to create unease. Horror films always thrive off the overactive imagination of the viewer. For roughly the first half of this film, my imagination was in overdrive and the dread was creeping up on me.

And then characters started explaining things. And the trouble came to their doorstep and they became first-hand witnesses to the zombie outbreak, not confused reporters of it. They had to hide in closets and fight zombies and figure out how to cure the disease based off impossible suppositions. Things got much less interesting, and more importantly, less engrossing.

Pontypool is based off Stephen Burgess’ novel (he also wrote the screenplay), which is in turn inspired by Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast. Perhaps the story, and its outrageous conceit of what turns people into zombies, worked better in the book. The novel was also adapted into a radio play at the same time as it was being made into a film. Perhaps radio would bring extra zeal to it, and the hypothesis regarding the outbreak would be more wrapped in doubt, prone to be questioned as just another hysterical explanation for something unspeakable made up by people in the heat of the moment.

There’s no sidestepping my central issue with this film, which is the explanation for the zombies. Apparently, a corruption in the English language, focusing on trigger words regarding affection and rhetorical questions, cause people to get stuck in a vocal loop, seek out trigger words of others, and eat their way out through others' mouths. The only ways to avoid the corruption are to speak in another language or eliminate our understanding of the trigger words.

This makes zero sense. It doesn’t matter that Hrant Alianak’s Dr. Mendez appears out of nowhere and has a surprisingly extensive explanation for the virus. His specificity only makes it more baffling. There is no way we can buy the explanation. It is just miscalculation on the part of the storytellers. They ruin a good thing by trying to add another flourish to their take on a tired genre.

Zombie films have always been allegorical. Dawn of the Dead is famously about consumerism, with all its mindless zombies marching around the mall like so many mindless shoppers. Pontypool seems to be arguing for the corrupting influence of the modern cacophony of noise. There’s no coincidence that McHattie’s Grant Mazzy is a radio shock jock, known for spewing vitriol and incensing rage in his listeners. Cloying affection and illogical rhetoric turn us into zombies? Apparently, according to Pontypool.

So despite Stephen McHattie’s admirable performance and despite the engrossing first section of the film, Pontypool succumbs to its own baffling logic. But I still won’t go as far as to say Pontypool is bad. Its first 45 minutes are excellent. If only they had stayed with the conceit of a radio station away from the action, telling the story of the zombie apocalypse, I would have been hooked for the entire time. Instead, the choices made in the film’s second act are fatal.

Pontypool is a film at odds with itself. In one sense it’s refreshing to see a modern Canadian horror film with such a tonal command. Unfortunately, that same commanding vision took the film in the wrong direction. Sometimes, such single-mindedness of vision can be a bad thing.

5 out of 10

Pontypool (2008, Canada)

Directed by Bruce McDonald; written by Stephen Burgess based off his novel Pontypool Changes Everything; starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, and Rick Roberts.