Halloween just past, and I’m not immune to the lure of sacking out on the couch and watching as many horror movies as I can stomach. Here’s a film I recently watched.
Pontypool. Pontypool. Pontypool. Panty pool. Pont de Flaque. What does it mean?
I’d been hearing about Pontypool for a while. I’ve heard people talk about it offhandedly on podcasts, mentioning that it was a good horror film, and a few people had recommended it to me in person, so I couldn’t help but notice when it popped up on Netflix. When I watch films, especially horror films, I like to go in blind. I don’t read plot synopses, or reviews–especially if the film is by a director that I trust, or stars and actors that I like.
Pontypool was written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his own novel Pontypool Changes Everything, and was directed by Bruce McDonald. It stars Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly. Before watching Pontypool I was altogether unfamiliar with pretty much everyone involved–except for Stephen McHattie who I’ve seen pop up in films here and there, but still, there was something there that was drawing me in. Maybe the title of the movie? What’s a Pontypool?
The one-sentence plot summary on Netflix made the movie sound like something completely different than what it turned out to be, here’s the synopsis:
Valentine’s Day is off to a bizarre start for a radio shock-jock when he runs into a crazed woman on his way to work — and that’s only the beginning.
From that description I was expecting something akin to the Parry subplot from Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, and some kind of revenge driven gore-fest, but no, I got something way more interesting.
If you’re like me, and you enjoy having zero preconceptions when going into a movie, then skip the rest of this write-up and know that Pontypool is very much worth the time it takes to watch it, and even the time beyond that as you’re thinking about what you just saw.
Pontypool is a bit of a puzzle.
Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a one-time shock jock who is now working an early morning shift at a small-town AM radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, Canada. The crew at the station is small, consisting solely of producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), technical assistant Laurel-Anne Drummond (Georgina Reilly), and eye-in-the sky helicopter reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), who we never actually see.
The film begins with a voice-over, an excerpt from one of Mazzy’s previous shows, and in the excerpt he’s talking about synchronicities, a cat that’s gone missing, Norman Mailer, JFK, and how the universe spasms just before something big happens.
As the film unfolds we get to know our central cast; Laurel-Anne enjoys Mazzy’s unconventional style and creativity, but producer Syndey Bryer chafes at his unprofessionalism. There’s an intriguing dynamic between Mazzy and just about everyone as he pushes their buttons and tries to make what should be a standard radio gig into something a bit deeper and interesting. We’re, in effect, watching a radio play. The camera never really leaves the radio station and in fact much of the movie happens with Mazzy in the recording booth and Sydney and Laurel-Anne outside the booth at the controls. The result is something that feels very much like the 1938 Orson Wells War of the Worlds broadcast, and just like that broadcast, it’s difficult to discern reality from fiction.
This is where the puzzle aspect comes into play. We only know what’s happening in the outside world by the things the characters are directly experiencing, hearing and reporting on. So when Ken Loney in his “Sunshine Chopper” calls in to report that a mob has gathered outside of the offices of the local doctor, we can only wonder why, and depend on our on-screen counterparts to ask the right questions. Ken doesn’t know why the mob has gathered, the news wires aren’t reporting anything, and when the mob turns violent, and people start killing and dying, we’re in the same boat at the characters on-screen, knowing only what we’re hearing, and what we’re hearing is hard to believe.
We only know what we hear, we only know what the characters decide to say out loud, we can only believe that what they’re telling us is real because we, like Grant and Sydney and Laurel-Anne, aren’t directly experiencing anything, and it isn’t until halfway through the film that we really understand what’s happening. There’s a viral outbreak in Pontypool, the whole city has been locked down by the government, and herds of people are roaming the streets killing. The outbreak seems contained to Pontypool and we know this only because a television reporter from the BBC calls the station to get more information about the “uprising” that’s occurring, information that Grant and Sydney don’t have.
It gets even weirder when a broadcast cuts into Grant’s feed and a message is played entirely in French. Another piece of the puzzle. Laurel-Anne gets to work translating it while Grant and Sydney work frantically to sort out all of the information that’s coming in. More reports of killings and death. Strange reports of people tearing each other open with their bare hands.
Laurel-Anne translates the message:
“For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and restrain from the following: all terms of endearment such as honey or sweetheart, baby-talk with young children, and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Please do not translate this message.”
Soon after we learn what’s really happening in Pontypool–a virus has infected the English language, a virus that causes madness, a madness that causes those who are infected to want to kill the non-infected, to take their words, to burrow into their mouths.
It’s a very interesting concept: Language as a virus. William S. Burroughs, the strangest of the Beat Generation, developed his cut-up method of writing as a way to combat the virus of language, which in his philosophy served to limit the interface we have with the world. Language locks in meaning, makes thought rigid. In Pontypool, however, language, specifically the English language, causes madness.
Why does the virus infect only the English language? We’re never told. Perhaps it’s because English is the language of the colonizers, it’s the closest thing we have to a global tongue. English has already infected most of the globe, it’s kind of fitting that it’s the English language that’s potentially the one that will destroy the world.
We’re never told what the ultimate goal of the virus is but we do learn that it’s not just the words that pass the virus, it’s the understanding of the words that causes infection. Grant and Sydney learn that the only way to fight against it is to make the ideas behind words fluid and incomprehensible, to swap meanings, to extinguish the rational thinking that language promotes.
The tone of the film is interesting, and very Burroughsian. There are some truly horrific moments narrated by Ken Loney as he watches what the infected do to the non-infected, and some gross-out moments as we see what happens when someone becomes infected but can’t find a non-infected person to kill, but there’s a wry sense of humor about the whole film. A sense that the film knows that it’s a film, that it knows that it’s a film that’s a radio-play, and that it’s going to convey or deny information to the audience in whatever ways it can. This leads to some conversations that dance around the subject at hand, conversations that seem to go out of their way to not ask any pertinent questions. It also leads to scenes that would seem more at home in a romantic comedy than a horror movie. It keeps its distance from the viewer, it refuses to be understood and at times it goes out of its way to be vague–which coincidentally is how one who is infected with the language virus can cure themselves, by turning words into vague notions, by obfuscating ideas.
It’s a puzzle that the film never attempts to solve. Where did the virus come from? Why did it target Pontypool? What was the word or phrase that started the infection? Was the government, or whoever, successful in stopping the outbreak? We get clues, but no answers, and that’s something that I loved about Pontypool, it’s brave enough to give the viewer a stake in the narrative.
Give it a watch, and help me figure this thing out.
Oh, and when you do watch it, stick around to watch the post credits coda. I won’t spoil it here–especially after I’ve spoiled so much–but I have ideas about it, and how it relates to the preceding narrative.