2008’s Pontypool started out as a book by Tony Burgess, Pontypool Changes Everything, back in 1995. It was an interesting take on the zombie concept and one that tried to maximize the effectiveness of its concept by creating a claustrophobic setting for the events that would impact the few characters the reader would get to know. The novel caused something of a small stir, but it wasn’t close to being a well known property even in many horror circles. Then the movie happened.
Pontypool was a smaller film that, somewhat like the book, was largely overlooked by audiences when it first came out. Thankfully, due to airings on cable and streaming services as well as the film’s inclusion in some multi-movie DVD packages, the film has been slowly building a larger and larger fanbase over the years. Still, it does occasionally struggle to find new fans as those unfamiliar with it tend to find much of the available promotional materials to be less than enticing. It usually requires knowing a fan of Pontypool who is strongly recommending it.
Well, I’m strongly recommending it. I’m not alone in recommending it, either. Pontypool even has that most rare of recommendations when it comes to movies based on novels- Tony Burgess has praised the adaptation as better than his own book. The reasoning behind this is understandable.
The concept for the zombie “virus” in Pontypool is a unique one. The transmission of the virus isn’t by bite or bodily fluids or supernatural means, but rather by spoken words. It’s a form of virus that infects the brain and works when a person hears and understands what is for them an “infected” word. Yes, that sounds weird, but it works very well in the film. It actually works better in the film than the book, because the concept of something that works via sound and words just plays out better in a medium that uses sound.
Another large reason for why it works so well is the strength of the performances by Lisa Houle and (especially) Stephen McHattie. McHattie’s Grant Mazzy is a radio personality who has seen better days. He now finds himself working for a radio station run by Houle’s Sydney Briar; a station that broadcasts from the basement of the local church. It’s not exactly the type of gig Grant finds to be a good fit, but he isn’t on the new job long before something starts to happen in the small town around the station.
At first there are just reports of something… wrong… happening in the town. The things happening aren’t at first big enough or seemingly out of the ordinary enough to set off warning bells for everyone, but then the news coming into the station starts getting stranger. It then starts becoming very clear to all involved that the town is facing something it’s never seen before, and, whatever it is, it’s deadly.
Pontypool is a tense, and sometimes very intense, horror film. It’s wonderfully written and the performances by McHattie, Houle, and Georgina Reilly make the script come to life with a strength you don’t often see in many larger budgeted horror films. Frankly, a great deal of the film’s power comes from the exceptional performance of McHattie as Grant Mazzy. The character of Grant Mazzy is essentially the guide for the audience’s experiences during the movie, and if the character was played wrong the film would have collapsed. McHattie not only plays the role to perfection, but he turns in a performance that at moments in the film command your attention.
Pontypool exists in another form besides the book and movie. They also made a Canadian radio play out of the story. Much of this production sounds like it’s simply audio from the film, but there are some small story alterations (besides just the shorter length) throughout the body of the play as well as an entirely different ending. It’s worth the just shy of an hour it runs to give it a listen.
As much as I love the audio version, the movie is much better. McHattie’s performance is powerful in the audio version, but on the screen it’s at times practically hypnotic. If you’ve never seen Pontypool, it is a film you have to track down and see for yourself.
Oh, and stick around through the film’s end credits. Yes, in 2008 Pontypool had a stinger scene after the credits.