Monday, June 1, 2009

Review: Pontypool (2009)

95 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

There is something inescapably terrifying about witnessing something horrible from a completely plausible point of view. Most films, especially horror films, give the audiences a sort of 'eyes-of-God' point of view, giving us the full picture of what's occurring onscreen even when the characters do not have such benefits. However, in recent years, we have seen a sub-genre of sorts that one might call the 'information withheld' horror picture. In these variations on tried and true stories, we only get as much information as the main characters, and we generally only see and hear what they see and hear.

Whether it's an apparent alien invasion seen only from news reports on a tiny television set (Signs), or a monster attack seen only from the camcorder owned by one of the random city dwellers (Cloverfield), these pictures put a premium on information, so that the slightest image of horror or nugget of knowledge is theoretically that much more frightening. Some of these films (Signs) are better than others (The Blair Witch Project), but they all are attempting to capitalize on the two hoariest cliches in cinema - what you don't see is scarier than what you do see, and there's nothing more terrifying than the unknown.

Pontypool is a low-budget study in claustrophobia and creeping realization. The picture concerns a once big-time radio DJ who has taken a last-chance hosting job for a small-time news station in a very small town. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) quickly attempts to drum up 'controversy', much to the chagrin of his producer (Sydney Briar). But almost immediately into his first shift, news breaks of an apparent riot or mass panic outside a doctor's office. As small bits of information drip in, it quickly becomes clear that something has gripped the town in a state of madness or confusion. As eye-witness reports become conflicted and increasingly confusing, the DJ, the producer, and the engineer must figure out what is going on before it is too late.

Apologies for the vagueness, but the less you know going into this the more potent the experience will be. Needless to say, the situation is soon revealed to be something far more complicated than a routine horror movie experience, and the picture becomes a sort of mediation on the power of words and the inherent influence of the English language itself. Holding this together is a dynamic lead performance by noted character actor Stephen McHattie. Looking like a cross between Don Imus, Lance Henricksen, and Dr. Gregory House, McHattie does little more than sit in a radio booth and speak for the duration of the 95-minute running time. But his richly detailed face and crackling voice dominates the proceedings in a fashion that might have earned Oscar buzz in a more high-profile picture.

The story never really leaves that tiny church-basement radio station, so the picture becomes increasingly tense as our three main characters realize that they may be 'witnessing' some kind of world-changing event without the ability to actually see any of it. For the first half, the film has a spellbinding hold on the audience, as we ourselves become desperate for any nugget of insight into just what is going on outside in the snow. Alas, at about the halfway point, Pontypool shows its hand. And while the more complicated explanation does add pathos and a subtext to the horror film narrative, said explanation is so convoluted that the picture has to spend much of the remainder of its running time explaining just what is going on. An additional character is introduced at about the hour mark for the sole purpose of expository monologue. While the film does conclude on a potent note of earned dread, this is the rare horror movie that almost tries too hard to be more than what it is.

Like many horror films that base their terror on what we don't know or don't understand, Pontypool loses much of its power once we fully understand (or think we understand) what the game is all about. It has a terrifically compelling first half, and an Oscar-worthy performance by McHattie. But the second half collapses under the weight of its own over ambition. Yes, director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess have much to say about the power of the spoken language, but they commit the cardinal sin of putting the message ahead of the medium.

Grade: B-

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