From Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, to the early works of Cronenberg and more recently to the Ginger Snaps trilogy, Canada has always been reliable for a good horror film. Director Bruce McDonald continues the tradition with the recent Pontypool, screened at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival that just recently was released in theatres across the country. Pontypool is a small town in rural Ontario, where a radio host makes his way to work one early morning amidst a blizzarding storm. While stopped at an intersection, a woman comes out of the dark, approaches his car and mumbles nonsense before disappearing again into the early morning. This sets the tone for what will be a surprising and unconventional horror film.
The premise is set up that the host, Grant Mazzy, has just got this job after being fired from his last one in a big city for being “too honest”. His producer is not pleased with his antics, and he rarely stays on page with what he is supposed to be doing, preferring to follow his instincts and descend into conspiracy riddled rants. During his broadcast, a phone call is received that there is a hostage situation, but no information is coming in from the police headquarters or the “wire”. The situation apparently diffuses, but soon strange reports of downtown riots are being made. The traffic/weather man reports the scene, commenting that people are acting as a herd, not a mob, they are crazed and are chanting incomprehensible nonsense. In spite of the onslaught of eyewitness accounts, no news is being reported from agencies or even the police. The three people occupying the small radio station remain in the dark as to what is happening just a few kilometres beyond their dwelling.
For fear of spoiling too much, I won’t go into detail as to what is “happening”. The film uses the premise of radio as a means of exploring the nature of communication, and though the characters themselves refute any connection to the language debate within Canada, it seems all too clear that the film is very much about that connection or lack thereof, between the two linguistic communities in the country. The characters themselves are swift and quick witted, and Stephen McHattie, who plays Grant Mazzy, especially brings to life an embittered and passionate radio personality who is as excited as he is frightened by the turn of events taking place in this small town in the middle of nowhere. This is a film where people are forced to say what they mean, and it speaks to the nature of radio as an elusive game of words. A nonsense that repeats and perpetuates itself, one that we accept without understanding.
As for the horror, the film is an effective thriller, relying heavily on the audience’s imagination to fabricate horrors far worse than make-up or action could create. Outside of the opening scene where Mazzy drives in, the film takes place entirely in the radio studio, and the claustrophobia is truly palpable as the characters seem as though they’re on an island, cut off from the rest of the world. Even when tangible “proof” of the goings on are presented, it’s fairly restrained, preferring to let the horror live in the human characters. The film loses a bit of ground in the second half, as it attempts to approach a fairly “out there” explanation/premise with some humour. It’s quite effective and subverts the genre especially in it’s use of a “scientist”, and how he is perceived by those around him.
The film feels very much Canadian, and it embraces it’s wintry setting and broad stereotypes to it’s advantage. As I mentioned earlier, it’s use of language especially speaks widely to the issues that still cause a lot of conflict in our country, even to the point of remarking on how exaggerated the struggle is. For anyone familiar with Canadian cinema, they’ll certainly find the ending bittersweet, it has the expected bleakness that I’ve come to expect and appreciate from my country’s filmmakers. There is no real resolve, only the realisation of failed survival, and in this case… the acceptance of it.