Thursday, October 15, 2009

October Horror-thon #15: "Pontypool" (2009)

On the surface, Pontypool looks like your average, unsuspecting Canadian town. It's in this wintry burg that once-mighty shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has been condemned to announce school closings and rattle off obituaries. But what begins as a normal day at the office turns terrifying once reports seep in of mobs slowly gathering throughout the town. Information comes through in fragments, but from what Grant and his producer (Lisa Houle) can piece together, Pontypool has come under the grip of some form of hysteria. Respectable citizens have snapped and embarked on killing sprees, rampages that continue to worsen throughout the day. Holed up in his sound booth, Grant can only wait and try to find a way to defeat the madness, unaware of the surprising means through which it's spread.

I know I already dropped a Yahtzee Croshaw reference last week, but while watching Pontypool, my mind kept flashing back to the man's "Left 4 Dead" video. In it, he noted how a true zombie game is one in which you can replace the enemies with pretty much anything, and it'd still feel like a zombie game. Mood and suspense matter most, which is why Pontypool is more than the latest hyped-up horror story. There are indeed men gone mad roaming about (members of the current "zombie" generation), but mostly, Pontypool lets your imagination do the work. Set almost entirely within the confines of Grant's station, the flick gives you a few frantic phone calls and snippets of the news to construct your idea of the apocalypse taking place a few short miles away. It's a device that works incredibly well, ratcheting up the tension by keeping viewers as in the dark as the characters.

Pontypool's other ace is the method by which folks become raving lunatics to begin with. Some will know what it is going in, which doesn't ruin the experience, but I'll keep my lips sealed for the uninitiated. I will say that it's definitely a unique twist, one as perplexing as it is the foundation for some skillfully-executed social commentary. The story takes great pleasure in pitting journalistic integrity and getting one's facts straight against warning people when some serious shit is going down. The resulting fireworks make for quite a show, played out with nimble flair and able to keep the mind occupied when it's reeling from trying to comprehend some of the story's more murky specifics. McHattie (seen previously in Watchmen and the Jesse Stone movies) nails the perfect voice for Grant, a relic of a DJ who's seen better and more excitable days. It was a little hard buying some of his pseudo-spastic behavior as the film progressed, but he proves to be just gruff enough of an anti-hero to rally behind.

You don't often see movies with so little going on visually that feel so damn exciting. Pontypool supplies some blood in the third act, but these theatrics don't hold a candle to what it allows the viewer's mind to whip up on its own. It's a well-balanced and sharp addition to zombie cinema, and considering the fine company this genre's been keeping lately, that's as fine a compliment as I can pay.

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