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Monday, August 18, 2014

Pontypool (2008)

Written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything
Directed by Bruce McDonald

Stephen McHattie:  Grant Mazzy
Lisa Houle:  Sydney Briar
Georgina Riley:  Laurel-Ann Drummond

I like being able to find connections between various pieces of art in the B movie world--it's fun to see the ways things are connected and to be able to tell if a director you like has read some of the same books you have (I strongly suspect that a young James Cameron read the Colossus novels as well as Harry Harrison's Deathworld books, and if you've read them you probably do too). So when I saw the oscilloscope wave in the middle of a black screen at the start of this movie I figured the filmmakers were tipping their hat to "The Outer Limits". Then the speaker began talking about someone denting their car on a bridge while swerving to avoid hitting a missing cat and I became certain in my own mind that the people behind "Welcome to Night Vale" have seen this movie. The tone of voice is quite similar, and the disparate facts being drawn together and explained, the irrational made rational for just a moment by describing it so flatly? That's Night Vale all over, with maybe just a touch of Professor Hess in the mix for a little variety.

Things get off to a disorienting start as a middle-aged white dude is driving at night through whiteout snow conditions in the middle of nowhere. The audience hears his half of the conversation as he fires his agent (he's a performer of some kind, then) and snaps his cell phone shut, muttering about of that makes two of them. He stops his car at a stoplight and a woman comes out of nowhere and slaps his window with her ungloved hand; the man startles, as you would, and can't quite make out what the woman is saying through the window glass. By the time he recovers his composure enough to roll down the window she's gone into the night. And the sound design in this scene is interesting--half a phone conversation, a droning DJ reading obituaries on the radio and the muffled voice from the woman followed by the echoing voice from the man all sound slightly different, layered and overlapping. It's always nice to watch something and instantly realize that some care and effort were spent on it in post-production.

The man pulls into a reserved parking space (revealing that his name is Grant Mazzy) and turns out to be the morning disc jockey on AM 660, a radio station out past the middle of nowhere. He pulls up and walks inside the church building that houses the studio as a pretaped segment with his voice rolls out onto the airwaves, ironically stating that he's on the air just as he should be. He greets his technician, Laurel-Ann, who looks to be at least a decade younger than he is and who has a thermos full of nice strong coffee for him. He adulterates it with liquor and says good morning to Pontypool, the community that the radio station services. And he's got a fantastic voice for radio storytelling, to be sure. His producer Sydney Briar joins him for some early morning radio talk and we get a fragment of Laurel-Ann's backstory--she served in the military in Afghanistan before returning to Pontypool and working at the radio station. There's some neat gliding camera movements in this scene, keeping things from getting too visually uninteresting with the three characters stuck in one location.

The heavy snowfall outside is predicted to last the entire day; there's some banter with the traffic helicopter pilot that Sydney Briar cuts short (and another layer of communication--Grant Mazzy can hear his producer through his headphones and the movie audience can as well, but the radio audience listening to Grant in the film's universe cannot). He's got an awful working relationship with Briar, using big city, big-market talk radio language for a sleepy town that just requires sports, news, weather and school closings over its airwaves. Mazzy claims that angry listeners don't touch their dials in the middle of the show, and he might even be right. But his methods probably aren't right for sleepy towns in northern Canada. It's like imagining Glenn Beck on a full tears-and-divine-revelation-that-only-he-can-save-America bender while cutting the ribbon at a mall opening. With more than a little justification, Sydney tells him that he's coming across as an asshole. He is chastened and proud in equal measure, but in his next segment he does tone it down quite a bit (and tells the story of his drive in and the mystery woman, asking his listeners if he should have called 911).

There's a weird call in that Laurel-Ann can't interpret during this segment, and then the police scanner in the studio starts squawking about a hostage situation; Sydney tells the engineer not to send the story to Grant without more information (the wire services aren't talking about it and there's no corroboration at this point); unfortunately it's already been sent to the broadcast booth. After some exaggerated talk at first, Mazzy talks the situation down (claiming inebriation on the part of the hostage takers, the hostages and the police at the scene); during a commercial break Sydney gently lets him know that the police are actually alcoholics and trying to keep their jobs, and he's not helping. Oh, and one of the police is her ex-husband's brother.

Another commercial break, another segment interrupted. This time Ken Loney (whose "Sunshine Chopper" is really just him in his car or occasionally sitting on a hill to get a better view of the greater Pontypool metropolitan area) is watching a crowd of hundreds of people outside the office of a disgraced doctor, all of them trying to get into the building--at least, that's what it looks like until the outside wall of the building breaks, spilling hundreds more out into the crowd. Ken barely hangs on to his composure (and there's a blackly funny moment where Mazzy tries not to spoil the illusion of the Sunshine Chopper for the listening audience), and the traffic reporter stays at his post, describing the arrival of military vehicles and the certain death of people trampled by and in the surging crowd. Inevitably, his report is cut off in mid-exclamation.

And as he tries to get information out of the air, Grant actually drops the shtick and tries to report only what is known, working with his producer to reiterate that nothing much is known at the time and that further information is needed. While the production staff tries to figure out what's going on (there's nothing on the news wire services about the riot, either, and based on their reaction it should be getting mentioned), the cast of a community theater adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia has shown up for an already-scheduled publicity interview, in full costume. Sydney, over Grant's protests, tells him to interview the actors (plenty of great reaction shots from them during this scene) while she and Laurel-Ann frantically work to assemble a story that can be broadcast about what they think is just a big riot at this point.

The song from the local performers is pretty much what you'd expect from an amateur dramatic adaptation of a widescreen epic film; while the children in the chorus sing about the Bedouin desert, Sydney and Laurel-Ann work to gather information one way or another--and again, they notice that there's nothing coming in on the wire services, which doesn't make any sense because this is certainly a story that journalists would be reporting on.

They get plenty to report on soon enough--right after the performance concludes, one of the children complains that she can't remember the end of the play and that for some reason she thinks it's called The Lawrence and the Table, which she knows can't be right. Then she starts repeating the nonsense syllable "prah" over and over while her face goes blank. The troupe leaves and it turns out that the show's producer was so busy gathering information for Grant to broadcast that she missed the weirdness completely. An attempt to get listeners to call in doesn't work out--either the calls get dropped or the people calling in aren't making any sense. Sydney starts to assume that it's some kind of inexplicable prank being played on the station.

A live call-in from Constable Roseland (one of the police mentioned earlier from the "hostage situation" that turned out to be nothing) doesn't impart much more information, but it's another official source declaring that things in Pontypool are getting weirder by the hour. More calls come in and the trio of station employees try to piece things together--among other things, there's a massive gathering of people surrounding a car between Pontypool and the nearest other Ontario map speck town; the crowd is so large that police report the car they're mobbing hasn't been visible for over an hour. Whatever's going on outside is big and getting bigger, and the film's tight focus on the three broadcasters in a church basement is a fantastic way to heighten suspense and keep the viewer off balance. It's a nice chilling moment when BBC World calls in to the Pontypool radio station to talk to Grant for "breaking the story". Plus you get to see the utterly baffled look on Mazzy's face as he realizes how serious things must be getting.

The BBC wants to know if French-Canadian troops have set up roadblocks to stop people from getting in and out of Pontypool and blames Quebecois separatists for the disturbances. And wonder of wonders, Grant Mazzy decides to keep from fueling the rumors; he tells the BBC that as far as he knows there's nothing political or organized about the mobs, and that police are responding but he's only heard rumors of military involvement. And when he tells Nigel Healing--and I just bet that name was "Nigel Knealing" in the book--that he just doesn't know what's going on in the absence of official commentary, the BBC runs with the story anyway, claiming that there are a series of violent mob attacks in rural Canada without any explanation. He also calls it an "insurgency" without a scrap of corroboration.

A terrified Ken Loney calls in next, crying and talking about what he's seen--the herds of people have been degenerating into savagery. He says they've been eating people and that the look in their eyes is no longer remotely human. As he continues his live report two people are attacked and consumed by the mob; one of the attackers hears him and crashes through the wall of the grain silo that Ken's hiding in. And, realistically enough, his assailant breaks enough bones that he can't get back up and go after the Sunshine Chopper reporter. Ken, more curious than sensible, edges closer to the injured attacker so that he can hear what it's whispering. And then the signal gets washed out, with a broadcast in French overwhelming the signal.

Laurel-Ann translates the message on the fly (Canada being a bilingual country, it's safe to assume she'd know French) while Grant and Sydney try to figure out what the heck just happened. Grant throws a stack of disclaimers out on the air before reading the message to his audience:  "For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and restrain from the following:  all terms of endearment, such as hugging; avoid talking with young children and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Please do not translate this message." Nice job, guys. While that message is going out, Sydney gets a personal call from Constable Roseland; they've been ordered to stay indoors at the studio because Pontypool is under quarantine.

Ken Loney calls back in, and things get weirder. He recognizes the person who attacked him--it's a teenaged boy who is calling for his mommy to help him in a tiny babylike voice. Grant has some kind of breakdown shortly thereafter and Sydney goes to an unscheduled commercial break to try and talk him down. Grant wonders if this is all some kind of weird prank on him, but that seems more like a psychological defense mechanism than anything else at this point. He decides that he needs to take a look outside and see if anything is actually going on in the world; this is also the first time in about forty minutes that the film has gone out of the basement studio. He doesn't even make it a full step out the front door when Laurel-Ann yanks him back inside and several people start slapping at the church door, each one repeating something from the conversation Grant just had with the show's producer.

Grant rises to the occasion, distracting Sydney from the danger they're in by telling her that her children are with her ex-husband 100 kilometers away in another city and they have a radio show to do. There's a surreal interlude where Grant does the list of morning obituaries, the sheer number of names becoming frightening, and euphemisms for people killing their family members playing over black and white footage of the victims standing, staring at the camera. A conversation between Sydney and Laurel-Ann turns ominous when the sound board engineer starts repeating the word "missing" over and over, but before Sydney can follow up on that she notices someone crawling into the station through an open window on his hands and knees. The man introduces himself as Dr. John Mendez.

Mendez got there just in time to save Grant and Sydney's lives, apparently. He refers to the soundproofed booth in the studio as a life boat and hides in there with the broadcasters, leaving Laurel-Ann outside protesting that she's not missing any more and can't they let her in? Shortly after this she starts running at the booth, smashing her face into the thick soundproof glass. Another live call from Ken Loney deteriorates into rambling and he starts repeating the word "simple" endlessly. Stephen McHattie's performance during the final signoff makes this movie better; you can perceive the layers of meaning and regret and fear while he says his last goodbye to the field reporter in the Sunshine Chopper and hangs up on Loney.

Right after this, Dr. Mendez makes an intuitive leap and figures out that the syndrome overrunning Pontypool is some kind of communicable disease, but one that isn't spread through any normal vector. Instead, it appears that speaking the English language is the way to transmit the infection. During the conversation where Grant, Dr. Mendez and Sydney all put it together there's also a darkly funny moment where they all agree that broadcasting over the radio is probably very dangerous while doing just that. They go to canned instrumental music over the air just in time for Laurel-Ann to resume beating herself to death against the sound booth glass like a trapped bird.

It turns out that the syndrome burns the victim out if they can't transmit it to someone else (which we find out in the nastiest shot in the movie). The shuffling mob of infected that were outside the building make their way indoors, and start pressing against the glass of the sound booth as Mazzy turns off the lights and the three survivors huddle down against the wall silently, hoping the zombies--and it's fair to call them that, I think--will lose interest and go away. A hurried "conversation" written in marker on note pads (and kudos to the filmmakers for making sure the words all show up in bold black letters on white paper for this scene so the audience doesn't get pulled out of the film trying to figure out what's being "said") follows, with a clever plan being hatched:  They'll talk through the loudspeakers on the outside of the building and draw the infected away from the sound booth so they can try to escape. It does seem to work, though Mendez makes another deductive leap that only English is working as the disease vector as he starts to succumb.

Sydney and Grant make a slow and cautious break for it, agreeing to speak in French and ditching Dr. Mendez in the sound booth. And it works out pretty well, other than the "Bedouin" who's been sitting in the lobby by herself waiting to be a jump scare. And in keeping with the story so far, the two broadcasters stomp her to death out of frame, with just the sounds letting the viewer know what's happening. A whispered French conversation about whether or not they have to kill Dr. Mendez (and who will have to do it, specifically, since neither one particularly wants to be a murderer) gets interrupted by the station lights going out and coming back on, the reappearance of the infected zombies, and Mendez apparently fighting off the syndrome and rejoining the group before bailing out the window he used to gain entry to the studio and leading the infected away from Grant and Sydney.

Which doesn't help anything when it turns out that Sydney has been infected as well, and unless Grant can think of a way to deprogram the virus on the fly while it's eating through Sydney's brain there's a very good chance they're both going to die. He comes up with a way to stop her from understanding the word that's seized control of her mind and the pair of them go back on the air as an extremely budget-conscious military attack happens outside; while they're trying to cure their listeners (with the paradoxical idea that if you don't understand what you're hearing it will fix you, but without telling people that) bombs rain down and the military is apparently shooting the infected on sight. Grant makes his final signoff speech, defiant to the last, as a voice in French counts down from ten. He did everything he could do, and like the best efforts of beleaguered heroes in all good zombie apocalypses, it was too little and much too late, and the authority figures weren't listening anyway.

What a neat little flick! By narrowing the focus down to essentially three characters (note that when Dr. Mendez shows up, Laurel-Ann exits the story), none of whom really know what's going on outside the studio, the film manages to give the viewer an apocalyptic story on a tight budget and without expensive effects. I love the lived-in feel of the CLSY set (especially the clocks set to different times; they're all labeled with the names of other tiny towns in the region and set to the same time rather than London, Rome, Tokyo or Moscow). I really appreciate the way the three heroes rise to the occasion and the way that the weirdness creeps in from the first frame or so and doesn't let up till the ending. And the woman from the car window slapping sequence shows up again at the end, in the crowd of infected trying to get into the sound booth. It's a little thing, but it's always nice to see continuity in films like this. Any time you put thought into your project before you roll film, it saves so much effort later. Later.


Later. Later. Later.


  1. This movie is like the Europa Report of horror movies (or vice versa). Its amazing what a skilled cast and crew can do with minimal sets and effects.

    The only problem I had was the title, it gives no clue what the movie is about, and it isn't particularly attention grabbing (unlike Europa Report, which has a perfect title). If I didn't compulsively watch everything labeled "horror", I probably wouldn't have bothered with this one, and that would've been a shame.

  2. And now I know that I've got to see EUROPA REPORT.

    As I watch more and more of these low budget horror movies, the craftsmanship of the people who know what they're doing stands out in sharp relief. If you have an idea and some knowledge of film grammar you don't need a lot of cash in order to realize your vision. And I like that they don't even try to show the military response.

  3. I look forward to your review of Europa Report!

    I'd also compare it to Trollhunter (in terms of quality, not content). In fact, both Europa Report and Trollhunter are examples of how "found footage" movies can be done really well.