by Jason Coffman
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It’s far too easy to put films into categories and dismiss them. While it’s true that many films have a lot in common with major, recognized genres, sometimes the little things truly set them apart. So when a film like Pontypool comes along, for example, some people will dismiss it outright as just another in the recent flood of zombie movies. This, however, would be a serious mistake. There are some subtle things that set Pontypool apart from— and in fact, far ahead of— the pack.
Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a radio shock-jock whose antics have landed him an assignment doing morning radio from a church basement in the tiny Ontario town of Pontypool. While stopped on his way to work one morning, a woman approaches his car speaking gibberish. Before Mazzy can ask what she needs, she disappears into the snow and he continues on to the radio station. Once there, he gears up for an exciting morning of announcing school closings and weather updates with station technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) and producer Sydney Brian (Lisa Houle). After a relatively quiet start to the day, however, a report comes in that a huge crowd chanting nonsense has gathered and is roaming the town trashing buildings and attacking random passersby. Soon Grant, Laurel Ann and Sydney find themselves quarantined while the situation in Pontypool rapidly escalates and threatens to beat down their doors.
While the plot and structure of Pontypool is familiar to anyone who’s seen any siege film since Night of the Living Dead, the execution is really what knocks it out of the park here. Given some severe restrictions— three main characters, basically one set— writer Tony Burgess (who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel), director Bruce MacDonald and the cast create a convincing aura of panic. The fear that whatever is happening outside might rudely make its way into the station becomes more and more palpable as the film progresses. This type of film always depends on great casting, and all of the leads give fantastic performances, drawing the viewer in to this tightly-focused tale of an apocalypse that’s a lot harder to describe than the typical return of the living dead.
The less you know going in the better, but it would be irresponsible of me not to mention that the concept behind the spreading “infection” is astonishing. It was no doubt much easier to convey the nature of this “infection” on the printed page, but Burgess’s script does a great job of getting the idea across. Or at least just enough of it to scare the living hell out of anyone who grasps the concept.
Pontypool is a thinking person’s apocalypse. It’s easily one of the best horror films of the year so far, packed with great performances and a (to say the least) unique take on the standard zombie/infection story. It’s tense, it’s funny, and it’ll give you a lot more to chew on after the film is over than your standard horror fare. Don’t let it fool you: it might look like a zombie movie, but it sure doesn’t think— or talk— like one.
Pontypool opens in select theaters and On Demand 29 May 2009. Be sure to stick around after the credits!
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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