GUIDE | MODERN SLAYERS

Pontypool

(Bruce McDonald, Canada, 2008)

BY TOM PHELAN | January 3, 2023
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was: “What?” This syllable, spoken by Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), shock jock in decline, is in response to an encounter at a traffic light as he’s driving to work in the spiffy opening to Pontypool (2008), directed by Bruce McDonald and adapted by Tony Burgess from his book Pontypool Changes Everything. A mysterious woman in pearls has emerged from the snowy darkness—rapping, rapping at our hero’s passenger door—and she won’t stop gibbering at the window. Mazzy asks the question, then she locks on to his words (“Hey, who are you?”), repeating them like Echo—Ovid’s Metamorphoses appears on the second page of the original novel—as she floats back into the darkness. Narcissist Mazzy will later feed the event into his on-air patter, an endless stream of gossip and semiotic paranoia that unsettles our minds and signals a unique take on the zombie-siege story.

Language has a poor track record when it comes to communication, but in the small Canadian town of Pontypool, it’s lethal. The wrong word, when spoken aloud, acts like a virus, infecting anyone within earshot. Victims become babbling monsters, doomed to wander the area in zombie tribes, searching for words to repeat and living souls to consume, because Twitter hasn’t yet caught on. Trapped in a radio studio in the basement of a church are Mazzy, his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and technician Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly), who broadcast the story live, trying to piece things together via eyewitness reports from Ken Loney (Rick Roberts’s voice), their man in the Sunshine Chopper. The off-screen live coverage of biting attacks and obscure transformations (relayed in the spirit of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast) provides the scariest moments in the movie. But Loney is a liar: it turns out the “chopper” is actually Ken sitting in his Dodge Dart at the top of a hill. Mazzy speaks for all of us when he asks, “Is this actually happening?” Real horror is learning not to trust your news source.

Pontypool is a masterpiece of pattern interruption. In other words, it’s very funny: no sooner does someone say something sane than it’s undercut by something bonkers. The virus infects Loney, but just as Mazzy begins to mourn, Sydney tells him not to bother: “Ken Loney’s a pedophile.” It’s a moment I laugh at every time. Then I feel terrible. Then Sydney tells us she only thinks he’s a pedophile. The film keeps tearing the rug out from under us. It happens even in the gory set piece where the horror and pathos of a kindhearted character’s death are transformed into farce by some enthusiastic color commentary by Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak), the B-movie exposition machine who drops in through an office window during the movie’s second half.

The marvel of Pontypool is that amid all the Python-esque track-switching, there are poignant moments, thanks to the charismatic turns by McHattie and Houle. As Mazzy and Sydney bicker and tease and misread each other over the course of the story, they fall in love. At one point, they plan an escape that entails looping words on the loudspeaker to lure away the infected. Mazzy chooses a phrase that expresses his affection for Sydney and is fairly verifiable: “Sydney Briar is alive.” It’s a simple but sincere affirmation of life. The film reminds us that we the confused living are still the envy of the dead, those lingering echoes no longer able to lie, to profess, or to love.🩸

TOM PHELAN,

a writer living outside Philadelphia, is currently working on a horror project set in western Pennsylvania. He co-wrote the movie Anamorph, starring Willem Dafoe.

How to see Pontypool

The film is also available on DVD, though there’s no Blu-ray yet in the U.S.
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