The best horror film you’ve never seen? Blogger Alasdair Stuart certainly thinks so…
Every now and then, something interesting falls between the cracks. A film will be trailed but never appear, something will sweep the festival circuit but never really make it to the mainstream or, some of the time, a film will just quietly appear on DVD with no fanfare. Sometimes it's deserved but sometimes you can find buried treasure, like Pontypool .
The film follows Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a former shock jock, as he hosts the morning news in Pontypool, Canada. Mazzy is all take no prisoners swagger and erudition, a man who is utterly convinced of his own huge abilities and bitterly resentful at being relegated to the morning show in the frozen north. He's aided, somewhat reluctantly, by his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and his technician Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), all three of them stuck in the basement of the local church, in a studio as run down and forgotten as Grant feels. Nothing happens in Pontypool, and Grant's persistent need to pick fights combines with this to make his life, and that of Sydney in particular, small, cold, and miserable. Until a report comes in about a mob of people attacking a local doctor's surgery, followed by reports of cannibalistic attacks on drivers, herds of people shouting nonsense and a sudden request from the BBC to interview Grant about what's going on. Something is happening in Pontypool, something huge and, for once, Grant Mazzy is exactly where he wants to be; in the spotlight.
The film, adapted from the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is very nearly a radio play, the vast majority taking place inside the studio and focussing on Grant, Sydney and Laurel-Ann and the reports they're getting of the world ending around them. The director's commentary mentions that the original idea was to bring it in even tighter, that the entire film would have been a sustained close-up of Grant's face and whilst that would have been fascinating, and difficult, the inclusion of the other characters helps immeasurably. Lisa Houle in particular is fantastic as Sydney, a long-suffering, competent person who's as trapped as Grant is but chooses not to complain about. Likewise, Riley brings a surprising calm and weight to her role as Laurel-Ann, a quiet, serious young woman whose own storied past is hinted at with elegance and depth.
The film belongs to Stephen McHattie though, who runs headlong at Grant, creating an intensely selfish, deeply insecure and utterly likeable figure who finds the one thing that he can rely on, his voice, may be the last thing anyone needs. McHattie, whose genre credits include Watchmen and 2012, has a staggering voice, bringing instant gravity and authority to the impossible, awful things he's describing. You believe it because Grant believes it and the film continually plays with what's going on, whether or not it's real and, crucially, whether there's anything that the hapless radio staff can do to survive. The central idea, that a disease is spreading through language itself, is simultaneously horrible and elegant and Burgess' script cleverly melds them with the sort of ground level approach to horror that films like Cloverfield and Skyline also use, to tremendous effect. The difference being that Pontypool 's characters are refreshingly grounded and real. These people aren't heroes or heroines, they're just people with a unique view of the end of their world who do the only thing they can do; talk about it.
Pontypool is not just the best horror movie you’ve probably not seen, it's one of the best movies of the last five years. The horrific elements are a perfect balance of gore and implication, the script is packed with superb dialogue and ideas, and the performances are top notch as is Bruce Mcdonald's smart, hands-off direction. Together they combine to make Pontypool a film you'll want to talk about, even if that's the last thing the characters want to do.