Despite what you might think Pontypool isn’t Welsh, in fact Pontypool is actually a small town in Ontario, Canada where, for the purposes of this film at least, a grizzled shock jock sits in his radio booth and listens to the end of the world.
Directed by Bruce McDonald and starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Hrant Alianak, Pontypool is, to put it in the simplest terms, a zombie film. At least in the respect that we’re dealing with a horde of crazed individuals attacking everyone in sight. The difference between Pontypool and other films of its ilk lie in two main areas, firstly it’s in the nature of the infected, they’re not exactly zombies. Although they’d sooner rip your throat out as look at you. In an interview director McDonald has described them as ‘Conversationalists’. An interesting word for a bunch of homicidal maniacs intent on eating you alive! The reason behind the name becomes clear, however, when you consider the second main difference, the source of the infection. In 28 Days Later it was the Rage virus, in The Crazies it was chemical contamination, but in Pontypool the cause is so innocuous, so unexpected that it will almost (but not quite, unfortunately!) leave you speechless. *The virus spreads through language itself, through words. We’re never entirely sure which words trigger the change. At one point a garbled French message warns our heroes to stay away from terms of endearment or conflicting phrases, but the rules don’t seem to be particularly hard or fast. The only thing we can be sure of is that it’s in English that these words become a threat. McDonald, in an interview at the 2008 Festival of Fear Expo describes the stages of the virus thus:
There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
It’s a terrifying concept and an incredibly effective one. As the situation is slowly pieced together through panicked phone calls and fragmented news reports a fantastically stark and frightening atmosphere is created. The fact that this atmosphere is created almost solely through the medium of sound is a testament to the skill of everyone involved.
The sound of the outside world slowly coming unravelled combined with the claustrophobic confines of the radio station from which the protagonists never stray, serves to leave you frightened to even open your mouth. That’s not to say it’s entirely without blood of course, particularly memorable is a scene where a poor unfortunate smashes themselves repeatedly into the glass radio booth before combusting rather spectacularly. But the sounds we hear as the disease spreads are ultimately far more terrifying. The terrible moment when someone begins to stutter and repeat a particular word sends a shiver down your spine. As will the look on a persons face as they struggle to comprehend the words running through their brain. Their minds struggling to adapt as sentences run together and ordinary words suddenly take on extraordinary meaning, tumbling from their lips in a stream of incoherence.
The film probably benefits immensely from the fact that the author who wrote the original book (Tony Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything) also wrote the screenplay, there are no extraneous scenes or awkward added exposition pieces here. I also think it benefits from being a Canadian film, the lack of big stars and vast budgets means there’s no fat on the bone, no ‘Hollywoodisation’ (although there is a post credits scene so stay tuned right to the end). Instead we’re left with a well formed slice of horror that doesn’t rely heavily on blood and gore, but instead frightens us with sound and the situation itself. All in all what’s probably most terrifying about this film is how close it is to reality. Of course there are no zombies in real life, no undead rising from the grave. But next time you say a word one too many times and it begins to lose its meaning, you’re one step closer to Pontypool.