In the beginning was the Word
February 25, 2011 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Canadian horror flick Pontypool (trailer) is a modern zombie tale quite unlike any other. Loosely based on a dense, complicated novel by Tony Burgess and inspired by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, it tells the story of Grant Mazzy, a grumbling yet likable radio host (played by veteran character actor Stephen McHattie) whose penchant for philosophical ramblings gets him booted from Toronto to the sleepy winter pastures of Pontypool, Ontario. One bleak morning, as the outspoken Mazzy chafes against no-nonsense producer Sydney Briar, disturbing news begins rolling in of a series of bizarre and violent incidents sweeping the town. Trapped in their church basement broadcasting booth, Mazzy, Briar, and intern Laurel-Ann Drummond struggle to understand the odd nature of the crisis and warn the wider world before it's too late. But this is no ordinary virus, and they find their efforts may be causing far more harm than good. You can watch the film on YouTube horror channel Dead By Dawn (1 2 3 4 5 6 7), but if you're pressed for time you can also experience it in its more logical form: as a one-hour BBC radio drama voiced by the original cast. And after the credits, make sure not to miss the film's playful non-sequitur coda.
posted by Rhaomi (49 comments total) 109 users marked this as a favorite
Words words words...
posted by basicchannel at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2011

This is one of the best Canadian films, period. While it was shot for peanuts, it was done so a) very carefully and b) on a RED, so it's definitely worth getting the DVD and watching it in a dark room on a big screen.

The sequel (Pontypool Changes) is in production now.

And the coda? Playful, yes, but not at all a non-sequitur. It's all very carefully set up. 'nuf said.
posted by sixswitch at 3:08 PM on February 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

This sounds very interesting, so I shall check it out.
posted by Edgewise at 3:17 PM on February 25, 2011

I absolutely adored Pontypool! My first viewing of it happened to be oddly appropriate: my partner and I have a Valentine's Day tradition of horror movies and homemade pizza, and the events of Pontypool unwind on Valentine's Day, which [spoiler, sorta] compounds and hastens the disaster.

To quote my own thumbnail review; self-link, obviously), Pontypool:
is a masterpiece of mediated storytelling: Mazzy and his crew are glued to their helm in the radio station, receiving updates from reporters and civilians in the field, which means that the tension is built by voices and words, not gruesome action scenes.

And it works. Not only does it work; the tension becomes a self-feeding cycle as it gradually dawns on the radio troopers that their reports may be compounding the disaster. This is a lean, elegantly economical piece of storytelling that builds to a horrific crest by allowing us to invest in the players, to piece together their relationships and characters and to imagine for ourselves the horrors offstage… and then the action starts to spill over.
It's eerie and funny and tense and it trusts that you're paying attention, that you're bright, that you'll understand. I adore Pontypool.
posted by Elsa at 3:20 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ponty. Pontypool. Ponty. Ponty. Pooool.

I absolutely LOVE this movie.

Watch out for U-Boats!
posted by Malice at 3:30 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Did the radio drama come second then?
posted by Deathalicious at 3:30 PM on February 25, 2011

A sequel, you say?
posted by randomyahoo at 3:53 PM on February 25, 2011

Deathalicious: "Did the radio drama come second then?"

It turns out the movie was originally going to be a radio show, then they expanded it into a film. The BBC program is actually just the dialogue from the movie, abridged and edited for radio. It works surprisingly well either way.

randomyahoo: "A sequel, you say?"

I hope it's a good one! Or at least just as good. An equal sort of sequel. Equal. Sequel.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:00 PM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Except for the radio station bit, this sounds very much like The Crazies. Which I thought was OK, better than the reception it got when it came out at least.
posted by scalefree at 4:11 PM on February 25, 2011

My old question (big spoilers) about the movie had an... equal sort of sequel. Equal. Sequel? Sequel? Sort of. Sequel. Sequel. Quill. Sequel.

posted by benzenedream at 5:01 PM on February 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

posted by Lucinda at 5:04 PM on February 25, 2011

This is one of my favorite movies, ever. One of my friends i go to movie nights at saw it on the Movies You May Have Missed site, and i fell in love with it. The audio drama works slightly better in my view, but just because i like the subtle changes to it. One of the other guys at movie night kept laughing and calling it stupid, because he kept taking what they were saying too literally, and he has no imagination.

The book... wow... it explains a bit that the movie and drama don't, but it is quite batshit insane, not in a bad way, but i really had no idea where it was going. It did help freak me out though, with how it implanted the idea of the way when you hear a word over and over and it sounds different and starts to lose meaning, especially since i dyslexia and dysgraphia, amoung other language issues. Also like how people with strokes have trouble with words.

I would kill for his voice, no pun intended. ;)
posted by usagizero at 5:23 PM on February 25, 2011

this sounds very much like The Crazies.

Not even close. The Crazies is very traditional, this is a bit different, to say the least.
posted by usagizero at 5:26 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Saw this, loved it, didn't know about the post-credits bit, INTERESTING STUFF.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:42 PM on February 25, 2011

That was great. Thanks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:46 PM on February 25, 2011

When you see a movie like this, you have to wonder how so many big-budget movies fail so miserably at the most basic storytelling level. I thought the explanation of the zombie virus in this one was a bit meh (it worked although I would have bought it more as a symptom than a method of transmission), but they did *such* a good job for a movie that takes place almost entirely in one room.
posted by Hoopo at 6:36 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Awesome movie, I'm amazed it made it all the way to the video distributors down here. When I try to hook friends into watching it, I like to explain it so: "suppose memetics is 100% correct, shouldn't then be an occasional word-based version of the Spanish flu that would literally kill people by wrecking their mind processes?". Not sure if that has anything to do with the author's intention, but it makes wonderful and creepy sense that way for me.
posted by Iosephus at 6:37 PM on February 25, 2011

Sweet, thanks for reminding me of this movie. I clicked through to Benzenedream's askme question and realized I was the first commenter there, saying that I had watched it just the week before and needed to see it again. Never did get around to that, so I think I'll watch it again this weekend.
posted by mannequito at 7:14 PM on February 25, 2011

And the coda? Playful, yes, but not at all a non-sequitur. It's all very carefully set up. 'nuf said.

I've been racking my brain and can't find a sequitir. Can you elaborate?

(unless understanding the coda will infect me, in which case kindly keep it to yourself.)
posted by condour75 at 7:20 PM on February 25, 2011

I just want to point out that the director is the great Bruce McDonald. (There is an interview with him in one of the links, but for those who don't click on FPP links, this movie was made by the same guy who did Roadkill/Highway 61/Hard Core Logo.)
posted by CCBC at 7:21 PM on February 25, 2011

Never heard of this and saw it for the first time thanks to this post. I liked it as a movie, but I really liked how the allegory was clear from outside of the movie, but not from inside the movie. No inside wink and nods from those in character, but right there in your face if you look at the forest, and not the trees. But, I can't quite catch the link between the movie and the cut-scene, it seems like something is there, but I can't quite tease it out.
posted by forforf at 8:13 PM on February 25, 2011

OK. Ouch. I remember now why radio scares me. It's inside my head!
posted by SPrintF at 8:22 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sweet loved it!
posted by meta87 at 8:52 PM on February 25, 2011

Great post, thank you. My friends and I just finished and like it a lot. Really impressive how scary it was.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 9:01 PM on February 25, 2011

Holy HELL this is amazing. I haven't even finished it yet, but godDAMN
posted by Existential Dread at 9:15 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Love it, thanks for the post! Would someone PLEASE explain the coda to me?
posted by 1000monkeys at 9:27 PM on February 25, 2011

Thanks for reminding me I need to see this as part of my quest to consume all things zombie.
posted by Samizdata at 10:02 PM on February 25, 2011

Semiotic Zombie is the name of my next grind project.
posted by Existential Dread at 10:06 PM on February 25, 2011

The word was a killer virus once. It could become a killer virus again.
posted by anazgnos at 10:19 PM on February 25, 2011

Heh, I just learned the reason behind the great chemistry between Stephen McHattie (Mazzy) and Lisa Houle (Briar): they're actually married IRL. And speaking of McHattie, he's surprisingly sedate and soft-spoken in person, not like the "Dr. House with twangy charm" character from the movie at all.

And good call on getting the DVD, sixswitch -- the image quality of the RED camera looks amazing, and I've heard nothing but rave reviews. This was apparently one of the first films to use it, too.

Also, two questions I've got after re-watching the movie:

1) For the polyglots out there, what language is Dr. Mendez speaking in this scene, and what does it translate as?

2) Who's speaking the very low-level words in this scene? It sounds like "You're on the radio, ain'tcha" and "Mazzy in the Morning, Grant, Grant, fishin' (?)." It can't be the zombiefied boy, who was making those creepy cooing noises at the time, and it wouldn't make sense for Ken Loney to be saying that. Was it supposed to be Grant's imagination?
posted by Rhaomi at 10:38 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bonus easter egg: at one point, the novel Snow Crash makes a cameo appearance.

There's something particularly funny in the French sections for anybody who's gone through French classes in an English-Canadian school.

Rhaomi, I think it's Grant's imagination.

Here's what the coda says to me. Spoilers (and incredible geekiness) ahead...

Grant's key insight is to replace an infected word with a clean (or resistant) replacement — "kiss is kill". But not any word can replace any other — "We're not going to save the world with bad haiku, Grant!" In other words, there's a mapping translation that could save the language, a prosodic substitution that walks the line between cliché and non sequitur.

The doctor speculates that the virus might bleed into "reality itself". Words have power. Grant — a professional talker — discovers how to wield it in his final, triumphant speech; it's almost completely non sequitur and yet somehow compelling. That speech is entirely spoken in this remapped language, and describes (and therefore creates) a new reality for him and Sidney to escape into. In the coda, he's still talking - still defining the new reality, naming things ("Lisa the Killer") - as the colour saturates and the world fills out.

Also, it's just awesome.
posted by sixswitch at 11:21 PM on February 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I would recommend avoiding taglining in this thread. Also, terms of endearment. The army will be along shortly.

This will not wendell. End well. Wendell. This will not wend well.
posted by sixswitch at 11:25 PM on February 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I watched this when my wife was in Quebec working on her PhD about attitudes to linguistic purism in French and Québécois people. I had previously tried telling her we should watch it together as it would be useful research but she was having none of it so it was yet another horror movie I watched alone. One day I'll get her to watch a horror film with me. One day.
posted by chill at 11:47 PM on February 25, 2011

One day. One Day. Wednesday? One day. Wednesday. Wednell?
posted by mannequito at 12:24 AM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, I watched it. Absolutely terrible. Pretentious and idiotic at the same time.
posted by bardic at 4:04 AM on February 26, 2011

Ouch, bardic. What didn't sit well with you? I thought the acting was first-rate myself and found the camerawork and sound design engaging, though I can see where the handwavey nature of the disease (and its explication) might put some people off. But terrible? Idiotic? Couldn't disagree more. It actually felt like one of the more thoughtful horror movies in recent years. At least it put a premium on atmospheric and psychological dread instead of jump-scares and gore.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:54 AM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

I found it a tad weak, as most Canadian films are, and overpraised by well-meaning Toronto critics, as most Canadian films are. But I had a smashing time watching it at the Fox and walking home of a summer evening.
posted by joeclark at 12:04 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A tad weak? Perhaps. But definitely compelling enough that I clicked every link and resized to full screen to the end. The premise was original enough to keep me hooked.

Certainly not the best movie ever created, but better than 3/4 of the garbage on Netflix streaming. And better than 95% of horror offerings.
posted by fescue at 12:38 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bruce McDonald is a film genius and I think this is probably his best work.
posted by rocket88 at 6:11 PM on February 26, 2011

This was good. Good. Food. Good. Ood. Good. This was good. It's OK! I am OK. I am good. I am food.

seriously, what an awesome movie, thank you.
posted by olya at 6:38 PM on February 26, 2011

The plot hook is basically a cheap gimmick. And the film is almost entirely exposition as opposed to showing us what's going on.

And arguably, that's a feature and not a bug, as the setting is a basement radio station. But IMO it felt like a grasp based on a low budget rather than a clever twist.

And the coda thing was just incredibly dumb.
posted by bardic at 7:35 PM on February 26, 2011

OK. Now I've watched the film. It was good. But I thought the radio play was better, more immediate. And more appropriate, considering the subject.
posted by SPrintF at 7:36 PM on February 26, 2011

Oh thank you for this. And while we're on the subject, are there any other horror films like this (ie, worth wacthing) that I somehow haven't heard of before?
posted by earlofrochester at 8:39 PM on February 26, 2011

earlofrochester, after spending a few minutes combing through my horror/thriller charts on Flickchart, I've got a few candidates for you in terms of offbeat, watchable, and reasonably obscure horror movies:

The most tonally similar one I can find is Moon with Sam Rockwell. Like Pontypool, it's a creepy sci-fi mystery set in a claustrophobic location with great acting and an innovative premise that messes with your head. And Rockwell really shines; he impressed me in the role as much as McHattie did as Grant Mazzy.

For intense atmospheric eeriness and great cinematography and sound design, it's hard to beat The Mothman Prophecies. If you found Pontypool scary, this one will probably terrify, especially since it's based on a real local legend. Set in a small wintry town haunted by some incomprehensible being, lots of frightening things are implied or described secondhand instead of thrown in your face, and when you do experience the supernatural firsthand, it makes your skin crawl -- kind of like the scene where you hear the infected boy babbling feebly over the phone. In fact, there's a scene just like that one in this movie, but with the spookiness cranked to 11.

Another good horror film is The Orphanage, about a woman trying to piece together the story behind a recently-purchased haunted house as she searches for her missing son. The action is largely confined to the spacious mansion, and the story is very good. Unfortunately it's in Spanish, so if you hate reading subtitles, it's probably not for you. But it's definitely worth the hassle, IMHO.

Blindness, based on the book by José Saramago, is a decent quasi-zombie movie/social commentary about a mystery disease that renders the world's population blind. When one woman proves immune, she has to find a way to lead her husband to freedom as society rapidly degenerates around them.

And lastly, there's Cube, another low-budget Canadian film about a group of strangers who wake up inside an intricate and booby-trapped prison of shifting mechanical rooms. It's not quite as good as these other movies, but it works pretty well as a think-outside-the-box thriller.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:14 PM on February 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Also: I hadn't listened to the radio version of Pontypool in probably over a year, but listening it to it again, I should note that the radio play isn't simply an abridged version of the film's dialogue track, but also has some significant changes in the latter half.

Specifically, starting from the point Dr. Mendez enters the scene, the dialogue is largely the same but re-recorded for some reason. The actors are the same, but the quality of the voice work and acting is, IMHO, measurably worse. Part of it is the fact that they have to describe some things that you'd normally see on screen, but it also has an awkward, unrefined, rushed quality, like they just did the first take and stuck with that.

More importantly, after Grant saves Sydney in the utility closet, the rest of the radio play is completely different from the movie. It's only a few minutes we're talking about, but I thought the movie's ending was far superior. It's almost like they finished the radio version before the movie was done, and they had to cobble together an ending for it without much time.

So yeah, watch both if you want to experience both formats, but if you only choose one, pick the movie! It's definitely worth the extra hour or so.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:11 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mon dieu, vous êtes tous fous! De personnes parlent français!

Quoi qu'il en soit je me souviens quand les commentaires sont sortis que cela avait l'air intéressant mais je n'ai jamais eu un tour de le voir. Ce n'est pas parfait, mais beaucoup plus intéressante que la plupart de ce qui vient de sortir Hollywood de nos jours. Pas vu un énorme quantité de cinéma canadien, mais il semble toujours intéressant et un peu bizarre. Je pense notamment à Cronenberg.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:00 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Si l'enfant attaquerons vais tuerait elle.
posted by sixswitch at 11:58 AM on February 27, 2011

Regarding the film's coda: my own interpretation is that it is a reminder that these characters are fictional and, thus, literally created by words. The characters in the coda are obviously very different from their earlier counterparts. Of course, they are: they're characters from a different movie. Change the words and world becomes completely different. Phillip Seymour Hoffman morphs from Dusty (in Twister) to Phil (in Magnolia), because someone changed the words that defined his universe.
posted by SPrintF at 2:25 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

From watching this film, I learned that if I am ever stuck in a Canadian horror film turned real life, I can often escape from the monsters by saying "wait here" and excusing myself to another room, being sure to securely (but quietly) shut the door behind me.
posted by idiopath at 4:12 PM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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