The low-budget Canadian horror film Pontypool is well worth watching. Its several characters are well-drawn and fully fleshed out through minimal tactics, while the premise’s in-built limitations contain new and unique elements, even to my seasoned movie-watching cynicism. But still, despite its heavy success at an early establishment of an unnerving, creepy tone in a genuinely novel context, Pontypool‘s second half tanks its tone and changed my initial opinion of the film from ‘excellent’ to merely ‘good.’
So what is Pontypool about? What makes its premise so unique? And what goes wrong for it? It is about a freshly-employed-yet-seasoned disk jockey and his finnicky, neurotic new manager at a local radio station in a small town in Ontario which gets caught in the middle of a violent and mysterious apocalyptic-style nightmare (as well as a snowstorm). And how does the film go so wrong? By transitioning from this unique and wonderful set-up into a mess of tired tropes, tone-destroying filmmaking and acting decisions, and nonsensical as well as unnecessary pseudo-scientific explanations of—and later attempted cures for—the nightmare in question.
The Successes of Pontypool:
Pontypool‘s greatest assets are related to its limitations. But seeing as the limitations are self-imposed (or more accurately, imposed by the screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything), this is not a case of art from adversity. Nor is this a case of significant ingenuity in its general form, as the formula of trapping or containing characters in an enclosed space has been at the core of a number of towering classic films, including Twelve Angry Men, Die Hard, and (one covered previously in this series) My Dinner with Andre.
Rather, what makes Pontypool‘s premise so ingenious is the relationship between the enclosed space (the radio studio) and the outside world (the flux of informational snippets in and out of the room via phones and broadcasts). The characters are held inside by both a blizzard and an authoritative lock-down concerning odd reports of massive localized violence. The origin and nature of this violence remains a mystery for much of the film, though clues filter in from interviewees, a field reporter, and local law enforcement. The result is a mounting dread, perfect for the horror genre.
These advantages and inventions of the context are bolstered by the strength of the two principal characters.
Grant Mazzy is a radio personality who is used to drawing an audience through bold, opinionated broadcasts (a practice which reflects his loud personality and possibly accounts for the professional trajectory which has relocated a begrudging Mazzy to this Podunk station—call sign CLSY).
Sydney Briar is the fastidious and anxious manager of the station, and her concern for professionalism, along with her familiarity with the small community of Pontypool, leads her into consistent direct conflict with Mazzy’s approach.
What we have between these characters is classic dramatic tension—two people with a common goal but incompatible methodology.
The buzz, pressure, and activity of an active media source completes the scene, keeping things unsettled and loose and fast-paced. As the reports of violent incidents start streaming in (and out), there is a wild energy to it and this pair attempts to communicate it to the public in their own styles. And the viewer of Pontypool is drawn in by this energy, enough to achieve that vital credulity which attains effective art (and especially a reactive product like effective horror).
But then a cloying plot device crawls in through a window and undoes a lot of great filmmaking and storytelling in a matter of scenes—a move which the other characters are then happy to capitulate.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Pontypool, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
The Failures of Pontypool:
I was ultimately disappointed by Pontypool, despite all of those merits detailed above. And the section of the film I disliked is so commensurate in duration to the section I liked, and so logically divisible from it, that the film reminded me of From Dusk Till Dawn, even if the genre shift is not as dramatic. But at least From Dusk Till Dawn can boast the realization of a beloved hypothetical (“What if a drama just took a jarring left turn into the horror genre?”) to justify its somewhat unsatisfying abandonment of several promising plot threads and character arcs. Pontypool‘s (less abrupt) move from subdued, experimental horror to bland zombie-esque disease/horde monster film bears no such beloved progeny or justification.
The opening car sequence of Pontypool sets the stage for dark intrigue, with even a possibility of psychological considerations. The ensuing scenes develop the nature of the horrifying scenario, while shielding the viewer from its full extent as well as its total justification; we have just one promising hint: a French warning broadcast advocating that people avoid terms of endearment, contact with loved ones, and the English language. But then Doctor John Mendez crawls into a window of the radio station, and with him enter my two main complaints about the second half of Pontypool: Pontypool‘s premise is nonsensically and unnecessarily explained (with no real regard for all of the careful tone and plot points of the first half), and Pontypool‘s second half relies heavily on overdone horror tropes.
The first and foremost issue with the film is the litany of things that are wrong with how it explains its apocalypse. What we know before Mendez arrives is that otherwise ordinary people are being driven to commit horrifying acts of violence, often against loved ones, while babbling English words and phrases incoherently. The theoretical explanation Mendez provides is that an extra-dimensional virus has attached itself to the English language and is spreading via the connection between meaning and expression.
So, right off the top (before digging into the tonal issues and pickier logical issues of this explanation), there are some thoroughly distracting problems with the idea itself. You don’t have to be pedantic to notice that just one language being infected is, to put it in technical terms, a load of stupid nonsense. English has tons of words that are simply words from other languages. Not to mention that cognates and homophones across languages are very common. You could be illiterate and still notice this about language. Other than its successful common usage, there is nothing special whatsoever about the sounds made for English words meeting up with the meanings that English speakers want to communicate. There is literally no reason for only one language to be infected, according to the explanation we are provided.
But the characters speak Armenian and French (one of the closest linguistic cousins of the English language—due to Norman influence, its early court usage, and shared cultural and geographical factors) to avoid being infected. This is portrayed as a fool-proof strategy that works flawlessly throughout its presentation in the film. I’ve got no problems with a far-fetched premise, as long as it doesn’t make zero logical sense from the moment it is spat out. As I have put it previously, no plot hole necessarily ruins the movie in which it appears; but the more obvious and more numerous the plot holes, the more likely it is that the viewer will be distracted from the film itself by its writing issues.
But despite it making zero logical sense from the moment it is spat out by flustered Dr. Mendez as he unintuitively solves this puzzle in front of our eyes, the other characters immediately accept his ad hoc hypothesis as plainly true. Worse still, this leads our main characters into their idea for curing the infection: you just have to disconnect words from their meanings in people’s minds, as Mazzy successfully does for Briar (after all, everyone knows that it’s easy to un-learn words in a matter of seconds by just repeating nonsense . . .).
Too pedantic? Maybe, but think about why I’m even able to be this pedantic: we didn’t need all this detail. A more vague version of the same concept might not have seemed so jarring and horribly thought-out. Not to mention that it could practically have solved itself if the movie had instead explored the idea (which it openly hints at, then completely abandons) that there is some reason that people should avoid terms of endearment and that a large amount of the reported violence is occurring among loved ones—turns out that’s nearly just a coincidence.
Honestly, I could go on and on about what a bad move this was from the top down—writing, directing, and acting. I could write an entire separate article drawing on my background in literary theory and philosophy to go through my endless list of nitpicks for the way the exposition and cure elements are presented and explained. But as I’m already probably bordering on boring some readers, let me just say that the Mendez character’s clumsy tonal discordance with the rest of the film (Dr. John Mendez provides comic relief . . . thus unfortunately lightening the tone of the film right before what would otherwise be the payoff of its earlier horror worldbuilding) should be enough for any viewer to dislike his presentation, even if they like the premise because they shut their brain off whenever he is speaking.
Director Bruce McDonald has defended in an interview the inclusion of the Mendez character and his breathless, convenient exposition in the following way: “It is an odd tonal shift in the movie. Up to that point it’s pretty serious stuff. But we wanted crazy, unstable, hyper guy to come in and deliver, ‘I know what it is!’ It is an old time movie device. And we felt it was time there to play that card.” It’s not clear whether he’s referring to the horror and sci-fi of the 70s and 80s or the horror and sci-fi of the 50s and 60s. But since there is no such “old time movie device” in the 70s and 80s-era films he discusses earlier in the interview, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he means the 50s and 60s.
Now, as a fan of the original 1959 to 1964 run of The Twilight Zone and of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even as someone who has in this very series praised the campy delights of 1958’s The Blob, this is a terrible excuse on his part. The style of science fiction or horror he’s claiming to emulate was all about an even and intellectual tone (sometimes at the expense of all else)—which is not what his dark and brutal movie was ever set up for, but which is what the frenetic idiocy of Mendez’s rambling would have destroyed anyway.
Having gone on so long about my main complaint, I would just like to say that my secondary complaint was no less annoying while watching (it only became the lesser of the two in retrospect). And that second complaint is that Pontypool, a mysterious and dark tale in a unique context, spends its second half incorporating as many zombie-flick and general film clichés as it can stuff in. This includes a horrid romantic pairing between the leads, a few actual jump scares, a countdown-to-black ending cut, an out-of-character self-sacrifice, and more.
Continuing along the narrative and tonal trajectory that the film was tracing for its first half (even if the ending were exactly the same as in the existing film) could have made Pontypool a phenomenal movie that I would be recommending enthusiastically for years to come. Instead Pontypool rapidly veers off course, and I am left simply saying that it remains a film that has a lot of strengths and is worth checking out (if you’ve got the time, and it’s reasonably convenient to acquire).
I’m a dispassionate, experienced movie viewer, and as a result I am sometimes chided by others for my lack of emotions when watching films. But Pontypool, however briefly and mildly, gave me that sense of dread to which all horror movies aspire. This is why the title of this article frames my reaction to its failings as a disappointment. Similar to when I first watched From Dusk Till Dawn, I can’t help feeling that I’ve somehow been cheated out of seeing the ending of a great film that I started to watch.