The words indie horror often bring a shudder, and not the good naked shower massage kind, but the bad mouthful of three-days-past-the-expiration-date yogurt’s not supposed to be crunchy kind. Usually, indie horror is an excuse for two or three rabid Fangoria fans to recruit college students to take off their clothes, play out their sexual deviances, and get splattered with ubergore by a) a redneck with a toolbox, b) some sort of Dunwich Horror, or c) another college student. None can hold a bayberry candle to the taught tension of Pontypool, which is something like Talk Radio meets 28 Days Later. A shock jock banished to the hinterlands of rural Canada finds himself trapped in the radio station while a mob of seemingly insane maniacs spouting gibberish lay siege to the building. With a minuscule cast, just a spectacular splash of gore, and a veritable straightjacket of tension, Bruce Macdonald creates an outstanding pseudo-zombie cocktail and an even better psychological horror that should make M. Night Shamalyan weep with shame.
Grant Mazzy’s (Stephen McHattie) had better days. He’s drifting through the snow on a night black as hell’s asshole when a mysterious woman smashes against his window and then disappears back into the night. He goes to his job at the radio station, located in the basement of a church in the small town of Pontypool, to start his daily broadcast of news reports, school reports, and morning talk. His beleaguered producer Sydney Blair (Lisa Houle) tries to keep a rein on him, keeping a steady patter of reproach and warning with the same strange warmth and firmness of an old married couple. His young assistant Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) picks up a broadcast on the wire about a hostage situation that turns out to be drunk ice fishermen closing out the season. Later when reports come in of a riot outside Dr. Mendez’s (Hrant Aliunak), it’s given by their helicopter reporter Ken — a man in his car parked on a hill making helicopter noises. Throughout the beginning, MacDonald carefully constructs this wonderful atmosphere of mockery and ridiculous antics redolent with Mazzy’s bitter sturm und drang.
Then he slowly adds the zombies.
To call them zombies is unfair and takes away from the fierce originality and true insanity of the monsters. Tony Burgess, who adapted the script from his own novel Pontypool Changes Everything (which I suspect is hiding on the shelves of most competent screen horror writers) referred to the people as conversationalists. The virus that infects them spreads through the human language. It starts with the infected repeating a specific word or phrase, usually a term of endearment or a simple word. Then the person gets stuck on the word. And next, the person goes delusional with language, seeking out speakers while spurting a constant stream of gibberish words, brutally assaulting people and trying to tear out their mouths to eat their words. It’s a brilliant concept made all the more vindictive when experienced through the hardened eyes of this maliciously hokey Imus cast-off Grant Mazzy.
McHattie, who’ll never hurt for work thanks to a fascinating resemblance to Lance Henriksen, absolutely shines as the beleaguered deejay. Most recently appearing as The Nite Owl in the Watchmen, McHattie kills with a smoky delivery, sopping coffee and liquor and spewing out bitterness and surliness couched as folksy wisdom. He manages to preach and seethe like a discredited tent-revival preacher, complete with a craggy face, a leather jacket, and cocked cowboy hat. This is McHattie’s show, and he owns the fucking limelight. Lisa Houle plays the producer true to form as ever I’ve seen represented in film — like a mother. She cares about her star, but also knows that sometimes that care comes in the form of a kick in the ass as much as a kiss on the brow. She manages to fall apart without ever seeming weak. Watching the stress of this insane situation erode at the facades of these characters is the entire brilliance of the film. Most horror writers forget that scary works best when seen happening to people who matter. Otherwise, it’s just butcher knives and boobs.
Pontypool goes a little weird towards the end. When the horror in a film is mostly psychological, this is always a danger. It narrowly dangles on the precipice of ghastly action sequence, but then goes immediately back to desperate entrapment horror. It’s such a simple premise done deftly. Hearing a crazed mob smash at the windows and doors while chanting “Honey” and “Sweetheart” is downright chilling. Watching as people turn is a zombie movie trick that’s almost always played wrong; here it’s goddamn eerie. Because while the mouth spews nonsense, the eyes scream in terror.
Pontypool is available on demand on the cable box, so for once, you don’t have to wait for DVD or live in godawful Los Angeles to watch one of the films I review.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.