Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pontypool - Radio Play Terror

I didn't stand a chance with this movie. Seeing as I share the rather unique first name of the main character, this movie got a lot more real for me, really fast. But I tried to smooth out my shattered nerves and review the psychological horror, Pontypool.

Click here to jump to the end for a SPOILER FREE REVIEW.

The saga opens with Stephen McHattie’s character, Grant, driving to work through the morning snow and cold. On the way he has the unsettling experience of a women pounding on his car window, speaking a few confusing words, and then simply walking off into the dark Canadian morning. Grant Mazzy is the new radio host of the small Canadian town of Pontypool. Grant doesn't have the greatest opinion of his more amateur gig in isolated Pontypool after his the more exciting shock-jock position he held previously. Nonetheless, Grant begins his morning show with the help of the very lovely Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) and the stern traditionalist producer Sidney(Lisa Houle). After some character-establishing back and forth between the three, strange reports start coming in. Through some dramatic call-ins, police reports, and official alerts, we learn that a murderous riot in spreading in Pontypool, of which individuals are acting and speaking bizarrely. Confused and suspicious of the incoming reports, Grant wants to take a walk, maybe see some of the crisis with his own eyes. They soon discover a growing mob around their building, chanting the words of the radio piped out over loudspeakers. The three lock themselves inside, and go back to the microphone. Sadly, the unrealistically attractive Laurel-Ann starts babbling, and speaking in a trance. At the same time, a plot device is literally dropped into the story, when Dr. Mendez crawls through a window and shuts himself, Grant and Sidney up in the radio booth. Dr. Mendez is connected to the outbreak of a virus in Pontypool. He explains over the radio, that the virus is carried by words in the English language. Infected words infect people and make them drawn to the speech of others. They are so drawn to others, that they try and eat their way into an other's mouth. This zombie-insanity is clearly seen as the infected Laurel-Ann bites at and charges the booth, and then dies. *Tear. After some cerebral back and forth, they decide that a word must be “understood” to infect. The massing horde breaks into the station and surrounds the booth looking for some tasty words. They use the loudspeakers to draw the horde out, but it looks like Dr. Mendez is losing it. But really the doctor is discovering that other languages are virus immune. After killing a zombie, Grant and Sidney hide while the doctor selflessly leads the zombies away. After a good build of dramatic tension, a climax is reached when the two discover a cure is created when an infected word loses its mental understanding. The culmination is a dramatic radio broadcast of the discovery as the military prepares to bomb the station. Grant and Sidney smooch in a rather Thelma and Louise type fashion.

The Good and the Bad
I am extremely impressed with the overall acting in this movie. Stephen McHattie was perfect for the lead role. With an acting record as long as his, you can’t expect anything other than a phenomenal performance. And Pontypool demanded good acting. The movie is shot in one location, without much movement, focusing on dialogue. McHattie’s leathery, hardened face is transfixing with his sly smiles, genuine confusion, and consuming terror. Strangely, it’s not boring watching a guy simply talk into a microphone for ¾ of the whole movie.
Lisa Houle does a great job as well. She easily brings across her early role, the simplistic and conservative station manager, but really shows off her chops as the crisis grows. Her fear seems real and her despair is consuming.
I don’t know whether the character of Laurel-Ann is simply one dimensional or if Georgina Reily is simply a young actor in this movie, but either way her performance was pretty forgettable. But I’ll forgive her, because she is so pretty and because she made a good zombie.

Again, I’m amazed at what the director is able to pull off with this story. It is very much a bottled-in plot. You could easily turn this movie into a stage performance with a single set. Even with that limitation though, the director hardly uses the same camera shot twice. The framing is dynamic and conveys the confusing and changing developments of the movie. The close-up is used liberally as the tension builds.

The director, Tony Burgess, was clearly influenced by famous Orwellian radio plays like The War of the Worlds. It is a type of drama/horror that is hard to expresses in film, but this movie pulls it off. Simply hearing dialogue and newscasts is more scary than you’d think. The most terrifying moments are when a reporter calls in and describes the insane mob pulling people from a car and ripping them to pieces. Hearing the football player screaming, literally, like a baby gave me shivers. Not being able to see the ensuing chaos adds a new level of terror and fear. I’m a firm believer that horror is more what you don’t see, than what you do see. The things we imagine are much scarier because it adds us into the creative process. In essence, we end up making the monsters ourselves. The radio is a perfect medium for this brand of terror.    

Plot Progression
The style of Pontypool is great for a director because it allowed him to completely control the plot progression. All the information comes from call-ins and broadcasts, so the director has complete control of timing. The timing and pacing of the movie is great. The crisis grows from confusing, disconnected reports. I was so confused when the French alert warned that affectionate words and baby talk were related to the glowing plague.
Our understanding of the plague finally becomes clear at about 1:10 mins. And then there is a bit of a zombie-holdout scenario, a quick cure discovery, and then the movie is over. I thought this was the biggest problem with Pontypool. All build up, with very little bang. I spent an hour plus piecing together this catastrophe, investing emotionally into the characters, and then the movie just ends? Where is the dramatic fighting for our lives moment? Where was the, “let’s use our new found knowledge of the zombies to defeat them”? I wanted more of the classic zombie survival scenario. And it’s probably just because I do love zombie movies so much, but I was left wanting more. This movie gets you all hot and bothered with horror anxiety and then turns out to be a zombie-action tease.

But don't take my word for it. Listen the the director Tony Burgess discussing Pontypool.

Pontypool is a George Orwell radio horror for today. If you are a big fan of fast action and bloody monsters, this isn't the one for you. Grant, the shock-jock at a radio station in small-town Pontypool, listens to and broadcasts strange reports of lunacy spreading throughout the community. This movie brings terror through your ears and into your imagination. What you don't see, can scare you. The steady build of anxiety will leave you on pins and needles long after the credits roll. The premise of the movie is entirely unique and will keep you thinking and wondering. Without a lot of violence or gore, this movie could have easily been bumped down to PG-13 if they had knocked off a couple of f-words. But don’t let a low gore movie turn you off. The terror Pontypool creates in your mind is real enough. With quality acting and quality cinematography, this movie delivers the language of fear. 

Final Grade: B




  1. Great review. I really enjoyed this film too and I'd agree on pretty much all of your points. SPOILER ALERT - The one thing I might question is the lack of an ending. I think that the big ending is actually when Grant has to talk Sidney back from becoming a zombie, but in the tradition of the rest of the film it is all done with words. I found this scene pretty tense and moving. True, it's not the most action packed though.

    Keep the reviews coming. Really enjoyed this one.

  2. In terms of the blog layout I think that it's pretty much there. Here are a few things to think about:

    The plot section is fairly daunting. It's quite a huge lump of text to read. It might be an idea to add more paragraphs and pictures to illustrate the plot points. It just needs breaking up a bit.

    I like the subheading you've used on the subsequent paragraphs.

    Try to find the best quality images that you can as these look a little washed out.

    Have a look at other blogs to see what they put in the sidebar. There is loads of different stuff that you can include. Labels are handy for allowing people to search older posts.

    I'm glad that horror films are helping with your depression. Writing a blog should help too, especially if you make a commitment to write regular posts. It will help keep your mind busy. I know writing mine has got me through a few dodgy times.

    Anyway, I wrote these as two different comments so that you leave the first one on and delete this one about feedback. Hope it's been of some use.

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback. You're right, that Plot paragraph does a look a little daunting now that I look at it. But thanks, you're a champ.

    2. No problems. I'd thought as well that if you're on Facebook and Twitter it's a good move to put a link in the sidebar. It's another way to publicise your blog so it's worth doing.

  3. Cory from the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse here (ahem: and I agree with Keith. Some paragraph breaks would be great. Also, white/light text on a dark background is, in my opinion, never a good idea (I admit, i did my first website the same way, FWIW).

    Writing wise, you are solid but need some polish. That will come with more writing, of course. You have a slight tendency to use run on sentences a bit, which is exacerbated by the lack of paragraph breaks. Double space paragraph breaks -- everyone loves them! Try to stick to shorter sentences in general, and watch word usage (i.e. the use of "women" in the first graf when you mean "woman"). And keep blogging. The world can never have too many horror bloggers.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Cory. And I'll be taking your tips to heart next post. ;)

  4. I like the feel of your blog. I was surprised by the honesty in your "about me" sidebar, but writing should be about honesty, and I like your style.

    From a layout standpoint (I'm not an expert on this, as my blog can attest to), I'm okay with the light type on dark background. It does get a little difficult to read when the background shifts to a lighter shade, though. I liked the way you broke up your review. I'm a big fan of repeating structure because I think it helps develop solid comparison points for reviews. I agree with everyone about the density of the Plot section. Adding pics helps make it less intimidating, but you should also ask yourself how much detail you want to get into. After all, aren't the only people who don't want the spoiler-free version going to be the people who already know the plot? If you want to comment on the plot in depth --- and I think your insights are going to be far more interesting than just a summary --- maybe move the spoiler-free section above the Plot section.

    As for your writing, the most important thing is being coherent (and you are). Writing polish comes with time, but clear communication and expression is more important in differentiating yourself and your voice as a writer. Having a set structure definitely helps with that, but your passion and insight are what will make people frequent your site.

    Horror bloggers are a fun bunch, and if you get involved with some of the online horror blogging communities, I think you'll find a lot of like-minded people. Just keep writing, and try to maintain a regular schedule (again, I'm a bad example of this). Good luck!

    1. Thanks a lot. I frequently find myself debating plot summery vs analysis in regards to length. But I'm sure I'll find that happy medium. And thanks about the honesty. It's nice to have some validation now and then after some nervous baby-steps towards inner honesty.