October 7th: War of the Words
The 2008 film Pontypool engages from the get-go. Overlooked big-time-shock-jocker Grant Mazzy, now the early morning talk personality for a small town radio station, has a self professed no-holds-barred take on radio oratory. More than comfortable saying whatever he pleases, he spins local news with world-stage grandeur. For Mazzy, each minor police byline is opportunity to agitate, but when the local Canadian community appears to devolve into chaos as product of a viral menace, one suspects Mazzy’s words are more prophetic than even his bigger-than-the-mic personality would suggest.
Pontypool is focused on the musicality of language from the start, inviting us to settle in and listen to the nuance of Stephen Mchattie’s world-weary grumbled delivery as it encompasses anything from daily traffic reports to almost frontline war correspondence. It seems to borrow heavily from a certain other radio horror, and with great result. As we learn that the outbreak is not biological, but rather a cognitive affliction spread by “infected words” of the English language separated from their meaning, the plot takes another turn. Here we are, with our story’s protagonist the largest local purveyor of sensationalist wordplay.
To label it as another (and less graphic) entry in the zombie catalog would be to dismiss Pontypools obvious philosophical and technical distinctions. This would be a mistake, as the monster here is not explicitly the freshly dead, animated by an indiscernibly ruthless need for flesh. No, the mob here is of the alive and unthinking, driven mad by noise and language, needing to destroy. Perhaps as result of it’s intelligent source material (in Burgess’ novel) it succeeds in developing a paranoia and claustrophobia few other horror films even touch upon, rendering its verbal contagion threat at once potent and omnipresent as wherever words flow, the psychosis may follow. The films’ one set (the radio station) contains its story admirably, punctuated by vivid audioscapes in the form of Welles–style satellite reports and intercepted broadcasts, letting the centerpieces of gore and riot go largely unseen. Leaving the realization of these tableaux to explode in the minds of the viewer rather than onscreen, Pontypool makes us complicit in the horror as our imaginings as an audience realize the events and give them their potency. When we are treated to the actual mob, I find them a little underwhelming, and overall, less effective than the threats of the films’ earlier descriptions. This might be the story’s main stumbling block, (aside from a very cerebral explanation of the verbal-virus) and, as it happens in the last third of the movie, it does water down the final moments a little.
Bottom Line: Pontypool is a minimalist horror movie that, while remaining largely sedentary, creeps and shocks it’s way towards a very real feeling of dread. How are we to protect against a threat spread by communication? Our world is after all, peppered with mindless fabulists and post- 9-11 sensationalism, taking the little and the large of the news and slinging both with a connect-the-dots entertainment approach on reporting. Too often what we get is a numbing state of all-out alert and little actual understanding. In effect, a kind of nonsensical drivel more centered on inciting action than actual edification. There are ties to larger themes here in Pontypool’s story, the dangers of communication, the value and power of meaningful discourse, the word as weapon, and the movie touches on them, but does not fully drive them home. The rest is up to us.