reviewed by Marc Glassman
Pontypool. Bruce McDonald, director. Tony Burgess, script based on his novel Pontypool Changes Everything. Starring: Stephen McHattie (Grant Mazzy), Lisa Houle (Sydney Briar), Georgina Reilly (Laurel Ann), Hrant Alianak (Dr. Mendez), Rick Roberts (Ken Loney)
A thriller with a difference, Pontypool is that rarity: a Canadian film with real commercial potential.
Wait a minute! Didn’t I just write the same thing about One Week?
Maybe Telefilm Canada is finally green-lighting the right projects. Both One Week and Pontypool are the products of Wayne Clarkson’s regime, which promised to fund auteur films that met commercial criteria. And they have: Bruce McDonald and Michael McGowan (sounds like they could be a Scottish law firm) create genuinely personal work but their new films are clearly intended to attract and address audiences.
Take the setup for Pontypool. Grant Mazzy shows up for work at a local Ontario radio station, unshaven and irascible. He pours scotch into his coffee (don’t do it, Mike Duncan!) while getting ready to get the show going. Always looking for an argument, Mazzy flirts and fights with young radio engineer Laurel Ann and station manager Sydney as the show goes live on air.
It’s business as usual at first — but, quite quickly, things begin to go awry. Weatherman and reporter Ken Loney starts sending in reports of strange activities in Pontypool. Masses of people are assembling, and they’re attacking people. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that there are monsters in this little Ontario town — flesh-eating creatures.
Why? What is causing them to attack? As Loney’s field reports become more alarming, and the BBC contacts the station for confirmation of bizarre rumours about fatal attacks taking place in Pontypool, Mazzy and his crew try to remain calm. Until the sounds of riots and violence can be heard outside their windows….
Pontypool is a remarkably effective film; the script and direction build the tension palpably. The problem — and there is one — is based on the film’s premise, that the English language is a virus that can cause people to go mad. Writer Tony Burgess’s notion is fine as far as it goes, though it is derivative of concepts first suggested by William Burroughs.
The real difficulty — and it’s a tough one for a genre film to conquer — is establishing the meaning of the viral lingo notion. How do you get it? Why does speaking bad French prove less infectious than good English? (Mind you, the French scene in Pontypool is funny — and quietly political in this supposedly bilingual country.)
Director Bruce McDonald — the outlaw filmmaker behind Highway 61 and Tracey Fragments — does a fine job of creating suspense in Pontypool. And Stephen McHattie is brilliant as Grant Mazzy. The question remains: will audiences accept Burgess’ exciting but unclear premise?