Last night the strangest thing happened. The lovely Queen actually sat through a horror film. This, my friend, never happens. She doesn’t like scares or jolts or gore. Colour me surprised that she even considered going to the sneak preview of the new Bruce McDonald film, Pontypool, which screened at the University Of Toronto’s Innis College prior to going into wide release this Friday. Director McDonald (Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) was in attendance and introduced what some are calling a zombie film.
Pontypool, for those of you that are wondering, is the name of the small Ontario town where the film is set. Written by Tony Burgess based on his novel, it stars a small cast, most familiar of which is Stephen McHattie, who’s likely best known for playing Elaine’s psychiatrist on Seinfeld. McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a morning radio show host who’s called into action when terror breaks out in Pontypool. Citizens begin repeating words over and over, eventually turning into mindless, cannibalistic drones trying to infect one another with a virus that’s transmitted via the English language. It’s a lot more complex than rage infected monkeys, I can tell you that.
Going in with absolutely no idea about the film, and not having had as much exposure to McDonald’s work as so many others (I still haven’t seen Hard Core Logo), I really enjoyed Pontypool. There’s a high level of tension amongst the three main characters, locked in the basement of a church where the radio station is located, essentially cut off from the outside world. It’s different from so many other horror films, in that the majority of the violence happens offscreen. While it’s not unwarranted to call Pontypool a horror movie, it’s interesting to note that virtually all the violence and tension is aural. From dying screams to the actual disease that overtakes the town, the horror is all in the hearing.
Having only briefly studied linguistics back in university, I doubt I got as much out of Pontypool’s use of semiotics as other’s will. But that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it.
Stephen McHattie is absolutely awesome as Grant Mazzy, a commanding presence on the screen. Had he ever actually tried to make it in radio, I’m pretty sure he’d have done very well for himself. While his two co-stars, Lisa Houle and Georgina Rielly, acquit themselves quite nicely as Mazzy’s producer and board operator respectively, there’s no question that Pontypool is totally McHattie’s film.
As for whether or not this is a zombie film, I suppose that depends on how you like your zombies. The rotting flesh lovers will likely be disappointed that there are no onscreen disembowelments, or that the virus in question isn’t transferred by bites but by vowels. But for those without the taste for raw human snackiness, like the Queen, Pontypool proves to be an appealingly non-graphic thriller.