Monday, August 23, 2010

Pontypool (2008) A Different Kind of Infection

I don't need to expand on how much I enjoy infection horror. Don't ask me why I like it - I don't like being sick, and I don't want others to get sick. But hey, Dawn of the Dead and [REC] are among my favorite movies. It's the impossible and unlikely made realistic that draws me in, I think. When I saw the trailers for the Canadian film from Bruce McDonald, Pontypool, the idea intrigued me: the method to spread the infection isn't a bite or a sneeze or some alien spore, but words in the English language. That's the kind of outside-the-box thinking that makes me take notice.

Now, let's get some similarities out of the way. You may recall I took a look at a little film called Dead Air, which has several similar plot points. Radio talk show host trapped with some crew members while an infectious outbreak runs wild outside, of which we see very little. Seems like the same, but the paths they take are quite different. The characters are a little alike, but their goals are different: one is survival and trying to figure out how to stop something, the other is survival and trying to get back to family.

Grant Mazzy, played by perfectly grizzled Stephen McHattie (who had a wonderful part in Watchmen that was cut out), is a veteran talk radio host who has been ostracized from the big markets. He's the main star, whether he likes it or not, of small station CLSY in the Ontario town of Pontypool. On his way to the station one snowy morning, he encounters a strange woman who seems to be trying to say something, but stalks off. Arriving at the station, he sets about his normal broadcast day with producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and engineer Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). Mazzy talks about various things around Pontypool, checks in with the weather guy Ken Loney (calling from his car instead of a real helicopter), and drinks spiked coffee. Mazzy uses his strange encounter from earlier as a topic on the 911 service.

Slowly, things start getting strange. Reports trickle, then pour in, about people behaving strangely. Eventually, Ken Loney calls in, frantic that people are attacking other people, chanting slogans over and over. He mentions frantic attacks and instances of cannibalism as he runs, frightened and trying to hide. The BBC even calls in at one point to ask Mazzy his take on this horrible situation.

It's discovered that something has infected words in the English language. Mazzy even translates a burst of pirate broadcasting in the French language that spells out the danger. The broadcast ends with the warning, "Do not translate this message." Uh, oops. What words are infected? Well, nobody knows. A person could be talking, then start repeating words over and over. They become disoriented, then a little headstrong and bitey. Laurel-Ann shows the symptoms, then succumbs to the infection, uttering unheard phrases outside the soundproof booth. She also charges the glass like a rhino, disfiguring her pretty face.

Mazzy and Sydney battle to keep the infected out of the radio station (an old church) and to prevent themselves from falling victim to the strange plague. They are joined - in a very odd way - by the doctor whose clinic was initially attacked, one Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak). He gives some more insight into the "infected words" phenomenon, providing a clue into how to beat it - before falling to it himself. He survives long enough to leave as Mazzy and Sydney send out a looping phrase over the air that they hope will bring rescuers.

Sydney becomes infected and thinks her fate is sealed. Mazzy comes up with a plan: change the meanings of words. Change them so that the infection can't root itself in the speaker. It's a pretty creative little idea there to infect certain English words, then use meaning as an anchor for the disease to take effect. Well, it works. Sydney is cured.

But is it too late?

Despite the seemingly ambiguous ending (and the weird little snippet at the very end - still trying to figure that one out, maybe I missed something), a sequel appears to be in the works, Pontypool Changes. I'm interested to see where they go with that. As for this movie, I thought it was an interesting take on the infection horror genre. The script moves nicely, and is carried by the performance of McHattie. He always seems to resonate when he appears, whether it's as Elaine's psychiatrist lover Dr. Reston on Seinfeld or as the original Nite-Owl in Watchmen. He has a presence, and Pontypool is his movie. He delivers his lines with a growling cool that leads you to believe he really is a radio personality, and one that has paid his dues more than once.

The idea of infectious words made me think of DC Comics' Final Crisis, which I'm apt to do quite often anyway. You may remember a lengthy blog on the epic, apocalyptic comic series I wrote some time ago. The Anti-Life Equation, associated with Jack Kirby's Fourth World creations, is "mathematical proof that [supervillain] Darkseid is the true ruler of the universe" and is designed to grind humanity down to depressed, oppressed husks. If you have the time, read writer extraordinaire Grant Morrison's explanation:

I particularly like the description, "It is the E=MC2 of despair."

When the Anti-Life Equation is finally loosed on the world, it's first done through the Internet:

Billions are infected right away, Oracle states later in the series. That's definitely a statement on how we rely on technology to communicate. How do you get infected? Just listen to the Equation. The Justifiers - Darkseid's human "police force" - wear helmets that broadcast the Equation on a loop so that there is no free thought left.

Infected words. Think about it. Terrifying, really. Communication as we know it would have to change. In the movie, they could change languages, but what if...? What if the infection jumped languages? What if it infected the written word?


Well, fellow survivors, just be glad the zombies outside our gates don't even talk. I don't think I'd want to hear their infected words...

Until next time, folks...

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. Ha, brilliant comparison to Final Crisis!

    Great review, man. This is one of my favorite films of the last 5 years or so.

    I'm currently reading the Tony Burgess novel which is VERY different from the film. In fact, I haven't even gotten to the point where there is a DJ or radio station, if they show up at all. It's still a great and poetic book that really shakes up our ideas of infection/zombie books.

  2. Thanks, Chris!

    I've got to get my hands on that book. That might be fun to compare that and the film.

  3. I believe I ended up ordering it from Deep Discount. Couldn't find it at any library or book store in my area.

    I'm about 100 pages in and it would be a pretty challenging comparison as it stands right now.

  4. Excellent. I liked this a lot, and I like that you've thought of some interesting comparisons.

    Have you ever read a novel called 'The Raw Shark Texts'? I instantly thought of it when I saw Pontypool. In the novel the written word becomes sentient, forming itself into predators. It's a really unusual, effective idea.

  5. Looks like thanks to you, Chris and Keri, I've got some new books to add to my reading list. I'm really going to have to check those out - that Raw Shark Texts sounds very original.

  6. I really liked the movie myself. I'm not sure about a sequel, but I guess he needs a fair watch before I pass judgment lol.

    I really did love the concept of the words being the problem.

  7. It was a very, very original horror film and sort of took the zombie genre and flipped it. Hell, they aren't even zombies. Also, I found the setting to be quite claustrophobic and it kept me on my toes trying to figure out what might happen. When they were talking back and forth with that other guy on the radio, it was freaky.

  8. Just a great, different creative flick. I got a chance to talk to Bruce McDonald after the screening I went to and he just seemed awesome. He says its being distributed all over the world (English will kill everybody on Earth!)