October Horrorshow: Pontypool, or, Sydney Briar…is Alive

I’ve seen plenty of bottle episodes in television, but not a lot of bottle movies. Enter Pontypool, a horror film out of Canada from 2008. In this movie, some type of outbreak is ravaging the town of Pontypool, Ontario in the middle of a raging snowstorm. The infected are murderous, making them zombie-like. They shuffle around and infect others, but they’re not after a meal, making these poor people more new-wave infected not-zombies than the traditional Romero undead. Anyway, that is what is going on in the town of Pontypool, but a viewer sees barely any of this, as the movie takes place almost entirely within the confines of a darkened radio studio.

Directed by Bruce McDonald from a screenplay by Tony Burgess (adapting his own novel), Pontypool follows Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a former radio shock jock who has been reduced to the role of news reader in the Canadian sticks. On his way to work one morning, Grant has a bizarre encounter on the road. A young woman bangs on the window of his car, spouting gibberish. Somewhere in the dark beyond her, an unseen person echoes Grant’s queries to the woman before she fades off into the darkness. Grant, for his part, continues on to his job.

As the morning wears on, Grant, his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and the engineer, Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly), continue to receive increasingly bizarre and shocking reports from outside the confines of the studio. It sounds like the shit is really hitting the fan in Pontypool, but it isn’t until well on in the film that the bad stuff begins invading the studio. It’s frustrating, because it sounds as if a hell of a movie is happening out there. I don’t know how events unfolded in the original source material, but in the movie, almost all the events of significance feel like hearsay. I can’t help but feel that, no matter how well this movie is made, I care more about what is happening outside the studio than what is happening inside.

What is happening out there? Well, the source of the infection plaguing the townsfolk is one of the more unique and creative zombie plagues I’ve seen in film. Some words in the English language have become infected. Speaking those words out loud, and then those words being understood by the listener, transfers the infection, leading the infected to seek out other people and, in turn, give them the infected words. Why this transfer requires violence is never adequately explained, but come on, WORDS are infected. That is pretty far out.

If the novel took place in a single location with all this chaos occurring outside, that’s one thing. The written word is far better at sustaining action at a distance because there is prose to fall back on. But all those neat words between dialogue in a novel are all gone in a movie. Pontypool is a tight production and it is also well-acted. But the disconnect between the viewer and events is a bit too extreme.