Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Friday: Pontypool (2009)

Today’s film is Pontypool (another Canadian horror/science fiction film: Cube and eXistenZ), and odds are you’ve never heard of it. Pontypool is a truly unique zombie film. Indeed, it’s more of a psychological thriller akin to Hitchcock's The Birds than it is a zombie movie. And if you love zombies, talk radio or smart horror films, this film is for you.

** spoiler alert **

Based on the Tony Burgess novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” and inspired by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, Pontypool combines two modern crazes -- talk radio and zombies. The film centers around Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a shock jock who lost his job in the big city for pushing things a little too far. Mazzy has a new job in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, where he and his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) don’t see eye to eye on how to run his broadcasts. As they argue their way through his first broadcast, they start getting reports of a riot at a local doctor’s office. The nature of the riot is unclear as the rioters seem to be shouting gibberish about the disappearance of Honey the cat. Soon the reports get more ominous until they find themselves under attack.

Pontypool differs from every other zombie movie because it disdains what has become the standard zombie formula. Almost without exception, zombie films involve a small group of people trapped by zombies, who shoot their way out and try to find somewhere safe. These films invariably turn into gross-out fests and shooting galleries almost from the opening scene. Pontypool doesn’t. You don’t even see a zombie for a long time and you never see a gun. Instead, you watch Mazzy and his staff of two (Sydney and Laurel Ann) struggle to make sense of what is going on based on the sketchy reports they are getting. And it is gripping.

With Pontypool the infection process itself becomes a mystery to be solved: why are people acting so strangely? How is this infection spreading? Can it be stopped? Zombie films never go into this except in the most cursory of ways because they are really action films. But Pontypool isn’t an action film, it’s a genuine psychological drama. The tension here does not come from close calls in fight scenes, but from things like the characters returning to their broadcast, when you know they should be focusing on the real problem, from the descriptions they get of what is happening, from characters suddenly acting strangely -- are they infected or just strange -- and from the sense of the ticking clock as they must solve this mystery before the zombie mob gets them. That’s what makes this film tense and interesting.

Also, the interactions between the characters are smart and well within character. There are no stupid characters, no Hollywood-type Rambos or people falling apart, and no one declares themselves king of the post-apocalyptic world. This is just normal humans responding to a crisis and it feels real. Plus, the strong performance by McHattie as Mazzy (who plays the first believable talk radio host I’ve seen on film) keeps your eyes glued to the screen.

Moreover, Pontypool has an interesting take on the creation of the zombies. In general, the zombie genre has been stale for some time. Night of the Living Dead essentially started the genre in 1968, after converting the ghoul into what we think of as the modern zombie -- mindless corpses that roam the earth looking to eat braaaaains. In 2002, 28 Days Later introduced fast twitch zombies -- infected humans, rather than animated corpses, who are faster than normal humans because of mega doses of adrenaline and are intensely, mindlessly violent. But that’s been it by way of zombie innovation. Sure, sometimes the zombie-ism is caused by a meteor or a virus or spoiled milk, but in each case, the effect is identical: the person becomes infected. . . dies. . . and wakes up as a mindless killer hungry for the great taste of human.

This film is different. The zombies here are normal seeming people who fixate on particular words once they become infected. This sends them into a sort of waking catatonic state where they become violent as they spout nonsense (like Progressives). I won’t say more because I don’t want to ruin the mystery. But the infection agent and mechanism in this film are not like anything you’ve seen in any zombie film before.

Finally, a word on politics. This film is Canadian, which doesn’t insulate it from politics, but I found the film to be refreshingly free of liberal messages. Sydney shows herself to be a liberal in one scene, but McHattie counters her with conservatism, though it’s never clear what his leanings are. There is some French Canadian v. English Canadian politics going on, but that means nothing to Americans. So ultimately, conservatives won’t feel like they’re being pounded with liberalism during this film.

Pontypool is unique within the genre. It’s extremely well-done. It’s got great acting and excellent writing. There's limited violence, limited gore, and the story doesn’t fall apart or become an excuse for a twenty minute bloodbath at the end. I highly recommend it.

Know any other cool zombie films?

39 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

I have just realized that this is not available on Netflix yet (apparently it's on order). Sorry about that.

But it will be on several times at the end of June on Showtime.

Thursday, 23 June

* 10:50AM - Showtime Beyond

Sunday, 26 June

* 1:15PM - Showtime Beyond

Monday, 27 June

* 8:15PM - Showtime Beyond

Wednesday, 29 June

* 2:50PM - Showtime Beyond

Tennessee Jed said...

If I see any zombie movie, this will be it. Nice review, Andrew, although to quote Ed McMahon, "you are correct sir," I was totally unfamiliar with it. The talk show theme makes me envision Ed Schultz by fixating on useless liberal ad hominums. Sure I saw a few of the Ed Wood stuff early on, and some dreadful early 3D horror movies, but missed out on most of this genre.
Something done with some intelligence and creativity would be most welcome.

CrispyRice said...

Ok, sorry, I'm not gonna read the article because I don't want to spoil it. It sounds very good from your introduction.

Hey, are you watching The Walking Dead at all? I've heard good things and have that on my Netflix queue.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. I don't think you will be disappointed. This is a smart and gripping film and the zombies are rare -- that's why this is so different than what you normally see because the focus is not on the zombies.

In terms of politics, he's a talk radio guy and technically a shock jock, but there's no politics in what he says. The closest he comes is a brief statement about pot growers and a two line exchange about global warming that makes me think he's supposed to be a conservative.

But the rest of it is about small town things, i.e. obits, missing cat, school closings and the such. He and Sydney have different views about how to build an audience and what his job is, and that's what they spend their time fighting about.

There is some politics at the end, but it's about English Canadians v. French Canadians and is unlikely to mean much to Americans.

All in all, it comes across as a very welcome politics free film.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Check it out, you will like it. Then come back and tell us what you think! :-)

I did indeed watch The Walking Dead and I'm waiting for season 2. I thought it was great.

BH did a couple articles on how it was all liberal, but they were completely wrong. It's a good show and I recommend that one too.

CrispyRice said...

Excellent! I'm looking forward to it. I find zombie things hit and miss. I'm not crazy about gore, so I don't like the stories that are just told so we can show lots of gross things. But I love the idea of exploring what happens when society breaks down.

Plus, one of my favorite stand-by lines, useful for any occasion, is "Well, after the zombie apocalypse, we're going to have to...(fill in the blank.)" Hee hee.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, The Walking Dead has some gross things in it, but not much -- mainly corpses, not people running around blowing up the corpses. It's mainly about the collapse of society and it takes a lot of interesting twists and turns.

Pontypool is low on gore too, though there is one brief moment.

CrispyRice said...

I can handle a brief moment. :) Even The Stand was ok (I know, not zombies, but lots of room for grossness.) But something like 28 Days Later - forget it!

I wonder when this will make it to Netflix.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, The Walking Dead and The Stand are similar in level of grossness, if the dead in The Stand were milling about. So there isn't much. And it spends most of its time with the people, who try to stay away from the zombies.

28 Days Later... yeah. I love the concept and it starts really well. But by the end, it turns into an anti-military screed as they make the military out as a bunch of rapists. And forget the sequel (28 Weeks Later) that was nonsense.

CrispyRice said...

Thanks, Andrew! I'll read this review after I get around to seeing the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Crispy, we'll leave the light on for ya! ;-)


(with apologies to Motel 6)

ScottDS said...

Nice to see some love for Stephen McHattie. He's a great character actor who's done everything from Seinfeld where he played Elaine's Svengali shrink to an excellent DS9 episode where he gets a regular line of dialogue and does wonders with it. (Kinda)

The film sounds interesting. A friend of mine is a big zombie fan and I'll have to mention this to him. Just add this film to the "Reasons we need a CBC America" list. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'd never heard of him before this. But when I looked him up, I was amazed to see how many times I'd seen him in other films (or on television) and just never put together who he is. In fact, I knew many of the roles, but I just never put together his name with his face -- which is probably a good sign for his acting ability that he can blend into the roles so easily!

He does a great job in this film and I absolutely recommend the film. The others do a great job too, but he really stands out. What's truly impressive is that he has the mannerism and voice of a modern talk radio guy -- not one of the whiny ones, but one of the cocky ones. There isn't a moment that you doubt this guy makes a living on the radio.

In terms of whether you will like the film, I know you're not into horror, but I think you will like this one. It's smart, it's only got limited gore (one quick scene), and it's tense rather than scary. This is not your standard zombie film. (In fact, the director tells people it's not a zombie film, though technically it is.)


P.S. I'm a big fan of character actors and we should definitely do some articles about the better ones.

Ed said...

Andrew, I've seen this late one night and I thought it was really good too. I really like Mazzy and I thought he was very believable as a radio talk guy. I also think the zombie thing was ingenius. I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but do you think it's a living thing as the doctor says?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I agree. Whenever I've seen a talk radio host in prior films, they are usually little more than props who spit out what the author wants to say and it never strikes me that anyone would actually listen to them. Mazzy's different though. He reminds me of many of the better talk radio hosts.

On the other issue...

*** Spoilers ***

Nothing the doctor says can be trusted. He's just guessing. So there's no reason to think it's alive any more than there is to think it's only within English. But it's still an interesting suggestion. Although I have to wonder how it could infect multiple people if it's a single living being? So if it is alive, then it's breeding like a virus. I would say, however, that it's a virus.

Ed said...

SPOILERS

Andrew, I take the doctor a being generally correct because he's the only way we have to verify what is going on. I'm not sure about the alive thing either. I don't think it needs to be alive as a virus should be enough for what happens.

I read in an article some time ago that the reason they attack other people is they think that's the only way solve their confusion.

It's a neat movie though and a nice review. Thanks!

Ed said...

Oh, one more thing, I love "The Walking Dead" and I saw the article you are talking about at BH. What a load! They completely miss that the story starts with cliches and then twists them. That's why the white trash guys turn out to be dependable and the gangbangers are doing what they are doing. It's about seeing the unexpected in people. It's not about pushing liberal stereotypes.

AndrewPrice said...

** Spoilers **

Ed,

I'm not sure about the doctor. He's the one who decides that it's only the English language, but in the ending credits it seems to imply that it's jumped beyond English. I could be wrong about that, but that seems to be the implication.

Plus, as I said, it can't really be a single life form because it's in so many different hosts. But it could be a virus, spreading from person to person.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, On The Walking Dead, I think that's right. But that's not uncommon for BH to get things wrong. I think they saw the presence of the two rednecks and said "ah hah! more liberalism" without ever considering what their story line was. In fact, the whole article was about how TWD was slandering white Southerners, which was just a real over reaction, a denial of reality, and a misinterpretation of the story itself.

ambisinistral said...

This movie sounds good and I'll keep an eye out for it.

I do have one quibble with your article. Night of the Living Dead did not start the Zombie genre, it had been around for decades.

Have we no love for Bela Lugosi and the sugar mill scene in White Zombie or the alien's whacked plan in Plan 9 from Outer Space?

Romero took the focus off who created the zombie -- always the frightening part of the earlier zombie films -- and placed it on the shambling zombies.

I've often thought if somebody really wanted to revitalize the zombie genre they would return to that earlier zombie model. The notion somebody could zombify you and make you a slave has a lot of territory to be mined IMHO.

BTW -- The Walking Dead is a great show. I'm looking forward to its second season.

AndrewPrice said...

ambisinistral, I'm glad you enjoyed it and I think you'll like the film. It's very well done and quite enjoyable.

On Night of the Living Dead, it didn't create zombies, but it did create the modern zombie. Before NLD, zombies were more like the Haitian version where a voodoo priest or mad scientist drugged you/hypnotized you and made you catatonic. Lugosi's zombies fall into that mold -- brainwashed, blank humans created one at a time and sent to do someone's bidding.

NLD kicked off the idea of masses of the dead rising and seeking out humans to eat them. In fact, these aren't really zombies in the technical sense, they are ghouls. And they aren't really intentionally created or created to do anyone's bidding. They are more like a herd of plague animals.

Also, when I say "started" I mean more "popularized." It's often true that a film or book or something that actually comes first doesn't inspire the trend that follows, i.e. something that came along a little later is the thing that inspired the trend or popularized the subject. In this case NLD really is the film that changed everything.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. ambisinistral, Feel free to disagree. I know that I'm not always right and I try to be as accurate as possible, so I don't mind hearing when I made a mistake. :-)

DUQ said...

Thanks for the review Andrew! It sounds good.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Funny thing. I don't much care for zombie movies, but my son loved them and dragged me to every variation of Living Dead made. But what's odd is when they're good, I really enjoy them. My favorites are Shawn of the Dead and Zombieland (even though I can't stand the sight of Woody Harrelson). Also laughed all the way through Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead series.

So given what you said about Pontypool, I'll give it the old college try (when it comes out on NetFlix).

BTW: The first time I remember seeing Stephen McHattie was in another obscure fantasy film with Kurt Russell back in the mid-70s (I think). It was Search for the Gods or something like that, about two young guys searching for an alien artifact. McHattie has been a solid second or third character in movies and TV ever since, but I always thought he was capable of being the main character. This will prove it for me.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome DUQ, check it out. I think you'll like.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It's definitely worth seeing. And I think McHattie will impress you. I was amazed how often I've seen him when I looked him up and he's definitely always been solid. In this film, he's great.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, sounds very interesting. I never heard of this movie before, but if I get a chance I'll certainly watch it.

To second practically everyone else, I also love The Walking Dead, and also hated the BH hit piece on the show. That made absolutely no sense.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Pontypool is definitely worth watching. I'd never heard of it when I watched it the first time and I was really surprised how well it grabbed my attention and held it.

Yeah, the BH piece kind of ticked me off too. One of the problems I've long had with conservatives who criticize film/culture is that so many of them are simpletons. They never take in the whole message. Instead, they just look at the most obvious first impression and then jump to conclusions.

The BH article is a classic case in point. It started whining that the show made white southerners out as racists, but that's not true. For one thing, they are all Southerners and only the two guys fall into the standard hillybilly/racist stereotype by appearance. But even then, we learn that they are actually pretty decent people contrary to what our first impression might be. And that was the point throughout the whole series -- our first impressions were always proven wrong. Unfortunately, the BH reviewer never got that because they got hung up on their first impressions.

It would be like saying that a story about thief who turns his life around and redeems himself "promotes theft" because it shows him stealing in the first part of the story.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew and T-Rav: I'm with you on Walking Dead." It was one of the very best new series of last season, and I very much look forward to its return. Everything you said about BH getting it all wrong is correct.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I actually did enjoy the comment thread on that article, because one of the usual leftist trolls agreed with me when I was chewing out the writer, and we ended up analyzing the season finale and what it meant, and basically just having a normal conversation for a few hours, which I enjoyed. (Note to any BH contributors reading: I think that's part of what the site was originally meant to do; i.e. provide a forum for conservatives about entertainment AND create a freewheeling, non-exclusionary atmosphere for discussion of said entertainment. You might want to work on that.)

Personally, I wouldn't use the word "decent" when describing Merle Dixon. But it was refreshing to see a typically stereotyped character displayed as someone with real emotions and a real thought process. He's still pretty vulgar and unlikeable, but he is a human being. Which is exactly what the BH writer missed.

Can't wait for the second season.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, "Decent" is an overstatement. He was human, as compared to cardboard. And his brother/buddy was pretty decent and cared about him. Plus, both were able to get along with anyone, even though they weren't people I'd want to spend time with, i.e. they weren't blindly racist murderers. And they were busy providing food for the rest of them, i.e. contributing.

On BH, I think it's too late. They let the cultists chase out anyone who didn't toe the line precisely and now there isn't much left except for knee-jerking idiots who don't have a clue about politics but like hearing politicians throw insults, and a handful of second class trolls.

Most every topic ends up with the usual slogans about Obama being a socialist, the MSM being part of a communist plot, fluoride being put into the water to drain our vital essences, and a certain politician being the second coming of Jesus. Yesterdayk, they were upset that the dirty RINO Bachmann (who apparently co-authored Obamacare) is an establishment plant meant to take away support from Jesus II.

Few people there offer anything worth discussing, and if they do, they are usually jumped on by the most troll-like "conservative" commenters. You got a perty mouth boy....

I don't think BH can fix that unless the contributors start putting out articles driving these people away -- but they won't do that because it's very difficult to stand up to that kind of pounding and because they've decided their target market is the cultists, not the humans.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"This film is different. The zombies here are normal people who fixate on particular words once they become infected. This leads them to lose touch with reality and they go into a waking catatonic state where they become violent while they spout nonsense."

Ahh...like a DNC convention then (with union thugs!). :^)

Thanks for the great review, Andrew. I'll check it out when I can.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

BTW, re: TWD,

I liked it with the exception of the last episode which was pretty hokey IMO.
Particularly the shot at evil oil but it wasn't dwelled on, thankfully.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, You're welcome! Trust me, I thought long and hard about making an Obama joke or even a Vancouver joke -- seriously, it must be the apocalypse if Canadians are rioting! LOL!

I think you'll like Pontypool. :-) Let me know either way though!


On TWD, I enjoyed it a lot. I think they could have done more with it -- and I dispute the idea that zombies would destroy society, but I thought it was a very nice addition to the zombie pantheon! And yeah, there were a couple cheap shots -- there always are, but I thought they were so minor that I barely noticed. Moreover, I think it was well balanced by going against expectations so often. All in all, I'd say it was a net postive.

T-Rav said...

Ouch, Andrew. That's a pretty harsh summation. But who called Bachmann a RINO?! Who's the "second coming of Jesus" politician she could possibly look like a RINO next to--Oh. Ohhhhh.

I don't know that the editors are determined to pander to cultists, but once you've got a devoted audience, however idiosyncratic, it's kinda difficult to break away and switch gears. Oh well. If they're happy with what they've got, more power to them, I guess.

As for TWD itself, I think the reason they didn't do more with it is probably that they weren't sure the show would have enough viewers to last that long (it is about a zombie apocalypse, after all), let alone be a major hit. Thus the six-episode first season. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more this next season.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Andrew : I concur. I think many conservatives have gotten too hypersensitive. I used to be that way but I finally realized theres a plethera of lefty films that make it thneir misson to take shots at conservatives and theres no use gettin riled up over the small stuff in otherwise good flicks.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Harsh, but accurate. You've seen the comments and what people respond to over there. It's not a very friendly place for any sort of open discussion anymore.

It's also beyond insane that they think Bachmann is a RINO or that she's secretly involved in passing ObamaCare. That really is paranoid fantasy land.

In terms of the audience, that's true, if they think they have a good audience that clicks the ad links and makes them money, then they'll stick with it. But it strikes me that they've made a place that's very hard for anyone who isn't insane to want to join in. So that means their audience will be very narrow and limited, and is likely to disappear once day if something happens to the one or two things that interest these people.

It also opens the door for someone to come along and replace them. I give Breitbart a ton of credit for things he's done, but he's set himself up to be surpassed in nothing flat if a well-funded competitor came along with a better maintained site and better content -- which wouldn't be hard to offer.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, On TWD, I agree, I'm sure they were a little limited by not being sure if they would get more than six episodes. It will be interesting now to see what they do next.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I'm the same. I don't like it, but unless it's blatant or constant, I just ignore it because it's not like there's a good alternative yet. Of course, I keep thinking, this is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to grab the power from Hollywood -- start making these films without the bias, people will flock to your door!

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