Monday, June 14, 2010

Pontypool: Grade B

Pontypool (2008)

Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak; Director Bruce McDonald.

Like many people, I have had it up to here with zombie movies, but this one is different because nearly all the suspense and horror is implied, not explicit. Sure there is a bloody-mouthed zombie who smashes herself repeatedly against a window, smearing up the glass with some nice gore, but we do not have to endure the stereotypical armies of stiff-legged zombies biting people’s necks open and so forth.

The main scene (and almost the only set) is inside a tiny radio station in a small town, Pontypool, Ontario. The new announcer (McHattie) tries to “build an audience” by provoking listeners with controversial statements. The producer (Houle) wants him to cool it and just read the schools’ snow closure list. The assistant (Reilly, in a standout performance for a small role), hears a police radio report of a riot downtown and feeds it to the announcer. As bits and pieces of the riot story dribble in, it begins to appear that large mobs of people are inexplicably on the rampage, killing other people. It turns out to be a zombie infestation, but our heroes don’t realize that at first, and wouldn’t believe it anyway.

The camera hardly leaves the tiny set of the radio studio, and except for the three principals, there are few other players, making the story quite setbound. That made it cheap to produce no doubt, making it a good choice for amateur thespians in years to come. The directing, cinematography and overall art direction are excellent however, so while I noticed the static set, I was not bored or put off by it. The fine acting combined with very good editing kept the visuals varied, and the pace never sagged, even for what is basically little more than talking heads.

The story line is extremely clever, the idea that a person “goes” zombie when they are infected by certain highly emotional English words. The idea of a mimetic virus has some basis in speculative philosophy, and the writers have some fun with it, such as the observation that everyone knows talk radio is highly infectious anyway, and dangerous too. There are also a few good jibes at French Vs. English biases in Canadian culture. But while the script has plenty of wit, this is not a comedy or a social satire, but a straight-ahead zombie picture, with no overarching message, which was a bit of a disappointment to me -- the possibilities were bountiful.

The ending is conceptually foggy but overall, this movie is extremely well made, especially since the threat develops slowly and plausibly (or just barely so), and the threat is mostly implied, not in your face (or neck). It is really unusual for such a crude genre to treat the audience with such respect. This small, Canadian Indie is well worth looking for.

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