(well…you can argue that it is science fiction…)
What a truly remarkable film.
I know that is easy to say, and that we tend to hear it all the time about the latest overhyped corporate product which is so loud and fast that you never really notice that there isn’t much of anything there.
But when you are talking about an intense and frightening zombie film with hardly a zombie in sight, a film which never leaves a tiny local radio station once it gets there, and which is based around a dense and rather curious intellectual notion derived in part from current scientific speculation, then you are talking about something truly (and undeniably) remarkable.
And, if that wasn’t extraordinary enough, there are only four main characters in the story. Five, if you count the helicopter weather and traffic reporter we never see on the screen.
It was enough to make its star, Stephen McHattie’s, heavily lined face a familiar feature in genre movie after genre movie. He gives a commanding performance as Grant Mazzy, a famous DJ making his first appearance on his new station. He wants to start off with a big splash, but his producer knows what it is like to live in a small town and keeps urging him not to go too far.
But before the two of them can learn to work together, they start getting strange reports of violence from the station’s sleepy home town of Pontypool.
They struggle to put the pieces together but no one seems to know what’s going on. More strange reports come in, as well as a mysterious message in French, which, when translated, ends “do not translate this message.” They even get a call from the BBC, who think that French Canadian separatists are attacking the town.
Things only get worse once one of those in the station gets infected and they learn what appears to be the truth behind the outbreak.
If they can believe the man who broke into the station to tell them that story.
It came as a bit of a shock to me when I realized that two of the movies I reviewed here, The Vast of Night (2019) and Waves [Infestation] (2020), both owed a lot to Pontypool. What is perhaps more curious is that none of the reviews I saw of these films seemed to have noticed the similarities. In all three, radio broadcasts play a big part and most of the tension and suspense comes not from what we see but what we hear. Much of what happens in all three films takes place off screen, including some of the most tense and impressive moments.
And yet it was some time after I saw Pontypool before that the connection with the other films ever occurred to me.
After all, Pontypool is something unique and disturbing, whose strange underlying concept is one you can’t see, but only talk about…
No matter how dangerous that might be.
Tony Burgess, who wrote the original novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, provides the script, which only covers part of the book. At the time he talked about making two sequels with the director, Bruce McDonald. I can’t say that I feel too bad that we never got them as I can’t imagine how they could possibly be as good (particularly since they planned to add more exposition and I suspect that this is one of those ideas which seems more convincing if we don’t work too hard at explaining it).
But then, I was very wrong about A Quiet Place Part II so you never know.
Now at the same time as the movie came out, Pontypool was also adapted as a CBC radio play based on the movie’s audio (although it is shorter and features a different ending). This seems rather fitting as the film was inspired in part by Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
We can argue about how scientific the basic notion is, or talk about the notion of inherited “Memes” (which are basically concepts and ideas) promoted by certain scientists like Richard Dawkins, or tie it all in to Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash which makes a brief appearance in the film and features a similar notion.
But none of that changes the fact that this is a mean, lean — and very effective — horror film. I can’t recommend it enough.
Even if I have no idea what that black and white clip at the end is supposed to mean…