Pontypool screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, December 3rd at 9:00pm as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? festival. It is presented in association with Rue Morgue and Chizine publishing. Actors Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle and writer Anthony Burgess will be in attendance and a Q&A will follow. Tony Burgess will also be signing copies of his book.
It is oddly appropriate and in no small way terrifying that the first time I saw Pontypool was in the basement of a friend's house in Pontypool, Ontario. We were miles from anywhere. Heck, just getting back to the road that led to the house itself was miles from anywhere. I was a city boy who was mildly acclimated to the country. I knew the lay of the land and could get around, but I still kept that swagger that only us city folk could provide.
This is the same world that disgraced and aging radio shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself thrust into. He now has to wake up every morning and do a show that he fully feels is beneath him in every way. Grant knows everything about everything and clashes almost immediately with his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle). The only friend or confidant he seems to have in the tiny radio station is a recently returned veteran who is a minor local celebrity, yet still works the phones (played by Georgina Reilly).
Very quickly it becomes apparent that this will not be a normal news day in the booth. It all starts with a riot at a dentist's office and people mumbling about the missing cat named Honey that people see signs up for all over town. Pretty soon and almost without warning, the small secluded town becomes besieged by humans who appear to be turning into zombies by way of some infection; only instead of the cause being a virus passed through the bloodstream or though saliva, this virus is passed through the English language.
As a writer the idea that language is cursed is something I wrestle with every day. Every word that I say could have a loaded meaning. In fact, just yesterday alone I had two separate incidents where something I said was taken the wrong way. It was misconstrued and people got angry at me as a result. Director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess work on a similar, but more deadly level. The idea that a word could have two different meanings is something people in the film generally lose sight of. That contradiction leads to madness.
The other thing about having violence come as a result of a linguistic problem is that you quite simply don't know what is going to happen at any time. What words are the infected ones that will lead to your potential infection. You can say them time and time again and you still might not be able to pinpoint what you did wrong. You could screw up and say the wrong thing. In a real world scenario, such a prospect is terrifying on it's own. In Pontypool, it could kill you.
McHattie is at his finest in this film and Houle and Reilly are his equals in a movie where you really only see the three of them for large spans of the film. McDonald knows that the scariest things are the things you don't see and he plays with audio cues more that visual ones to achieve a very claustrophobic feeling film (90% of the film takes place in and around the recording booth of the station) that chillingly informs the audience of the world around them without once showing just how bad it has become. Once you get past the "language as a killer" idea of the plot, it isn't as avant garde as it sounds on paper. And possibly most importantly, it is utterly terrifying.