Language is the most important tool humans have at their disposal. But what if our language turns against us?
A small town in Ontario, Canada is infected by a deadly virus that is spread by words. Now here is a horror film with fuel for thought. What if you were witnessing an event that you couldn’t see, but only hear? Would you believe it? Pontypool puts its characters and its audience into that exact position. And I got to tell you, it’s worth the watch.
Radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is on his way to work when he is confronted by a strange woman. She mumbles something over and over then disappears into the early morning darkness. This will all become clear later in the film. Mazzy is a cowboy of the local radio community. But his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) has other ideas for what she’d like Mazzy to express. His “no prisoners” attitude annoys her and she just wants a nice simple show. But homecoming hero and technician Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) likes Mazzy’s shoot first persona. During their morning shift things take a drastic turn as reports come in of a riot down town. That riot turns nasty and more reports flood in of fatalities. There are strange sightings of people being bitten and ripped apart by neighbours. Then there is a strange announcement in French for people to refrain from using English. Something uncontrollable is happening, but Mazzy and his radio team are determined to get to the bottom of it, even if it means their lives.
Pontypool does an incredible job of holding your attention. The characters are immensely likable and sympathetic. But it is McHattie who shines in the role of a down-and-out DJ Mazzy stuck in the small leagues. He’s electrifying, and one just gets lost when he speaks into a microphone. Throughout the film he remains on top form.
The tension is maintained splendidly, keeping the action of the film to the radio station in a small studio. You are only privy to information as it comes in and when Mazzy reports it over the airwaves. We are not even permitted a quick glimpse outside of the chaos that apparently is taking place. But somehow, it is more frightening listening to an eyewitness over the phone describing a horrific scene of violence and mayhem than it would have been had we seen it ourselves. There’s a part of you that doesn’t believe it is happening. Even the characters question the source. They can’t find any evidence online. The wire is silent. So, is it true? Until the troubles come to their door you are left wondering.
Pontypool is essentially a zombie film, but with a twist. Instead of the virus being spread by a bite or a scratch it is spread through the English language. A certain word or phrase can infect a human being. But it is not the same word or phrase that infects the same person. It varies. Once these infected words are said and understood, the virus takes hold of the host. The first symptom, indicating the person has become infected, is that they will repeat a word over and over. The only way to beat the infection is to convince the host, that the word they are speaking means something completely different. By killing the word you save the person.
It’s an interesting concept, albeit somewhat hard to grasp. But the idea of language turning against us is terrifying. Well, for those who speak English it is. The virus apparently has not found its way into foreign languages… yet.
Pontypool does an amazing job building and sustaining tension with a typical deadpan Canadian humour. I was thoroughly entertained right up until its final moment (see below). Radio ain’t dead people. Listen out for this one.
Best Line: “Do we really want to provide a genocide with elevator music?”
Best Moment: Mazzy’s final “fuck you” just before the bombs fall.