In the fall of 1938, Orson Welles provided one of the most memorable moments in radio history with his innovative adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. By presenting the story (at least the early portions of it) in the form of breaking news updates, Welles successfully persuaded many gullible members of the general public that America was being invaded by creatures from another planet. The nifty Canadian horror film Pontypool presents a similar scenario, as a handful of employees at a small radio station attempt to persuade their listening audience that some sort of zombie outbreak is taking place. However, there's one key difference in this instance: some sort of zombie outbreak is taking place.
The station is located in the humble village of Pontypool, Ontario, where former shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, A History of Violence) has transitioned to a new, less glamorous career as a mere radio announcer. Grant isn't particularly happy with his new job and station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle, Ejecta) isn't particularly happy with Grant's on-air personality, but they do their best to tolerate each other. The only other employee present during Grant's broadcasts is technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly, This Movie is Broken), whose research savvy proves invaluable during breaking news stories.
One morning, Grant has a strange experience on his way to work. A woman approaches his car and begins pounding on the window, repeating the same words over and over again. She eventually leaves, but Grant is unsettled by the scenario. During the morning's radio broadcast, Grant starts getting calls from people reporting that others in the area have been exhibiting similar symptoms. A stampede is taking place at a nearby pharmacy. Multiple murder-suicides have been reported. A doctor issues a strange warning advising that citizens avoid using the English language when speaking to each other. Naturally, Grant, Sydney and Laurel-Ann are baffled by all of this, and make an attempt to figure out what's going on.
I mentioned that the film involves some sort of zombie outbreak. That's true, but it's not the sort of zombie outbreak we're used to seeing in horror movies. Part of the fun of Pontypool is in the way it keeps us guessing about the specifics of this horrible situation. The big reveal is the sort of thing that will likely make scientifically-minded viewers roll their eyes, but it's such an absurdly unique and diabolically clever idea that I was more than willing to forgive its sheer implausibility. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to accept the movie's core premise, you'll be pleased to discover that the movie at least manages to faithfully follow its own convoluted rules.
Pontypool takes inspiration from old radio dramas in another interesting way, too: most of the film's horrors take place offscreen, described by panic-stricken listeners or heard over a spotty phone line. Yes, the threat eventually arrives at the radio station's doorstep (allowing the film to transition from implied horror to visceral horror), but director Bruce McDonald makes the most of his limited resources by successfully persuading us of the existence of a fully-populated, vibrant village being consumed by a strange virus of some sort. The film's most potent horror can be seen in the faces of the actors, trying to react calmly to the news that people they know are dying violent, horrible deaths.
Speaking of which, this is a terrific showcase for the talents of Stephen McHattie, one of those talented character actors who rarely gets an opportunity to bite into a part this juicy. His gruff-but-sonorous voice has a hypnotic quality, and he speaks with a striking blend of radio-friendly salesmanship and straight-shooting honesty. The stream-of-consciousness monologues he's given feel less self-indulgent than they might have, simply because McHattie puts an interesting spin on all of his lines. Lisa Houle also does fine work as the station manager, gradually allowing her dislike of Grant to dissolve as she realizes that there are bigger problems in the world than her employee's personality. The only weak link in the cast is Hrant Alianak (Billy Madison), whose hammy overacting might have been more amusing in a cheesy B-movie setting.
Admittedly, there are moments when Pontypool seems perilously close to allowing self-indulgence to derail the proceedings. Some of McDonald's artful flourishes are effective (particularly a mid-film documentary-style survey of the victims that have piled up so far), but there are moments – particularly in the film's semi-hallucinatory third act – when the film seems to be straining for arthouse mystery. Thankfully, these moments add up to little more than minor distractions, and the film as a whole proves a skillfully crafted and admirably ambitious affair. As the movie's oddball credit cookie suggests, this a modern horror film with the heart of an old black-and-white RKO production. If that notion makes you smile, you'll probably dig what this flick has to offer.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 2009