Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Canadian Zombie Flick: Pontypool

Generally, Canadians are good neighbors, but some annoying aspects of the country’s culture have drifted south of the border, like the music of Celine Dion and a nearly religious devotion to socialized medicine. In true South Park style, we can also “blame Canada” for literally infecting the English language in Pontypool (trailer here), Bruce McDonald’s nifty little genre thriller opening this Friday in New York.

Pontypool is a friendly little village in southern Ontario where people rely on CLSY Radio for weather forecasts, crop reports, and school closings. For shock-jock Grant Mazzy though, it represents the end of the line of a controversial career. Driving into work one typically snowy morning, he has an odd encounter with a woman who appears to speaking gibberish. It seems weird, but at least it will be a good bit for the show.

However, as the show progresses, strange unconfirmed reports start coming in suggesting his experience was part of a wider epidemic. Evidently, a mob of people speaking incomprehensibly has turned murderous. The provocative Mazzy wants to run with it, but his by-the-book producer Sydney Briar insists on proper verification before they report such outlandish stories. As a result, Mazzy must conduct a surreal interview with the cast of the local community theater’s production of Lawrence of Arabia, while Pontypool burns.

As its gimmick, Pontypool posits a new form of disease carried by language, which proves deadly to those who understand the infected words. Of course, the French language is uncontaminated, which is a real drag for the questionably proficient Mazzy. While the language-as-carrier premise might not stand up under the scrutiny of post-screening logic, McDonald holds it all together rather well in his cleverly conceived production.

Pontypool is a brilliantly staged genre film, which brings to mind the claustrophobia of the classic Night of the Living Dead. Rather than relying a makeup and special effects, McDonald draws suspense from the uncertainty felt by CLSY’s skeleton crew as the world seems to be falling apart outside their windowless studio. Shrewdly adapting his own novel, Tony Burgess’s screenplay could easily be produced theatrically, using a small principal cast confined to the few small rooms of the CLSY studio. Yet, McDonald’s direction never feels stagey.

Stephen McHattie turns in one of the best genre performances in recent years as the Imus-inspired Mazzy. He is a crusty curmudgeon with deeply human flaws, whose reactions to the exceptional events of Pontypool elevate it well above standard apocalyptic-zombie fare. Lisa Houle is also quite believable as the responsible Briar, who must contend with Mazzy’s ego as well as the plague of zombies.

Pontypool effectively capitalizes on its outlandish MacGuffin, engaging in some inventive linguistic games, while nicely maintaining the tension. It is a cool little zombie movie that will appeal to the audience for smart, character-driven horror films, like Let the Right One In. It opens this Friday (5/29) in New York at the Cinema Village.