Talking a Blue Streak

“Language is a virus from outer space” — William S. Burroughs

The variations on Rio Bravo as filtered through Night of the Living Dead continue to spread through pop culture like a virus, which is interesting, given that “infection” is the chosen vector for most zombie movies and their close cousins. Personally, I think the fever has run its course, but that doesn’t stop other people from continuing to make zombie movies, and I’m still occasionally surprised by them. Case in point is Pontypool (2008, directed by Bruce McDonald), which has an interesting infection vector and an agreeably creepy cinematic structure.

The story follows down on his luck DJ Grant Mazzy through his workday at a flyspeck talk radio station in the basement of a church in Pontypool, a flyspeck town in rural Ontario. He’s obviously used to a bigger market than rural Ontario, because he chokes on the podunk local interest stuff that makes up his show. One hilarious example is a family of faux Middle Eastern singers who come on the show to perform, but he also has a man in the air doing traffic that is faking the helicopter sounds from his car and lost pet reports. As the movie opens, and just before the film strikes its first uncanny note, he’s bitching to his agent on his drive to work. On this particular day, something weird is afoot, as reports from his man on the street describe outbreaks of riots and murder. As the day progresses, Mazzy and his two-person staff find themselves increasingly isolated from news, and increasingly alarmed at the information that IS coming in. As the film enters its last act, as a doctor who is an eyewitness to the mayhem makes his way to the station to provide Mazzy with information, it becomes increasingly clear that it is elements of language that are the infection vector, that “infected” words are driving people into a homicidal frenzy.

It comes as no surprise that Pontypool is based on a play. You have, essentially, four characters, a limited set, and a conservation of time and place. This follows Aristotle’s unities faithfully, which intensifies the tension during the film’s first couple of acts quite nicely. The unity of place in particular emphasizes the claustrophobic sense of being trapped by a universe gone mad, and here, Pontypool is a true descendent of Night of the Living Dead. It even samples some of its imagery even though, for the most part, the “zombies” are a threat described at second hand and kept off-screen.

Because this is essentially theater, it has to rely on its performances, a potentially fatal flaw for a movie from this sector. Fortunately, it has a couple of corkers in Stephen McHattie as Mazzy, and Lisa Houle as his impatient producer, Sydney Briar. This is a rare horror movie in which the characters–and importantly, the sound of their voices–is more compelling than the monster or the gore. Indeed, it’s a rare horror movie in so far as big chunks of it consist of McHattie talking to a microphone without boring the audience. Kudos to him. The nature of this film’s infection vector (and the quality of its actors) allows the film to indulge in some delirious verbal gymnastics towards the end, particularly when Mazzy convinces Sydney that the word “kill”, which has infected her, is really “kiss.” When she ultimately says “kill me,” it is about as startling a moment that has ever been seen in a horror movie that uses that line. On the whole, the movie makes dazzling use of its sound design. Parts of it are an arresting sound collage, and the whole thing is a showcase for McHattie’s voice. I’ve seen McHattie in a LOT of things, but I never noticed how smooth his voice is. Has it always been like that? If so, I don’t remember it. The film’s play on languages is suggestive, too, of why this could NOT have been set in the United States, given that part of its plot turns on both of its lead characters being bilingual. Also appropriate: it ends with a voice-over collage of news snippets that function as an audio analogue of Night of the Living Dead’s closing photo montage.

Zombie movies mostly act as metaphors, and this one functions as one, too, if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing. Without actually lampooning talk radio, it suggests that it is an incitement to violence, which is an obvious conclusion. More interesting is its flight into semiotics and how language as a symbology is inherently dangerous. The metaphor for an infection is particularly apt. Heady stuff, really, and not the sort of thing you expect from a movie like this. It makes it a lot better than it might otherwise be with a different Maguffin.

But, of course, it’s not perfect. Once the movie gets into its third act, it becomes pretty clunky. The arrival of Dr. Mendez at the 50 minute mark or thereabouts is a deus ex machina. His only function is to deliver exposition and theory to point the leads out of their predicament, and just like the gods from the machine of old, he’s yanked off-stage just as soon as his function is complete. The “talking cure” that Mazzy develops seems absurd on the face of it, regardless of the scenes it allows to happen. The shift in relationship dynamics between Mazzy and Sydney at the end of the movie seems contrived, too, but it’s not cringe-worthy (I think the doctor’s entrance and exit probably are cringe-worthy, but be that as it may…).

In any event, Pontypool is evidence that, however tired I’m becoming of zombie movies, they aren’t anywhere near played-out. While this is partially an academic exercise (which is a sign that the whole sub-genre is nearing the end), it functions just fine as a horror movie even if you don’t care about the deeper levels, and not a bad horror movie, either.

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2 Responses to “Talking a Blue Streak”

  1. annamae3 Says:

    Excellent. Though I’ve only seen about half of the film (the last half), you’ve pinpointed my exact problem with the film: the arrival of the doctor and the sudden change in the relationship between the leads. That’s where the magic fell apart. Up to that point, it was such a tense film. A complete viewing is in order.

  2. Perfect summation. I agree that “Dr. Scott’s,” (as I like to call him based on my association with RHPS) was a bit uncomfortable and forced. However, I disagree that the “sudden” developments between Briar and Mazzey were too contrived. His defiance against her “authority” over this flyspeck radio station felt like, in addition to his reluctance from going from mass audiences to a one horse town, a “grade school flirtation.” There was a certain electricity that was evident, to me at least, between the two from the get go. It was a sort of “I’m going to pull your pig tail and you will get mad and chase me” type of situation. The two were brought together more forcibly due to this sudden crisis, the “ending of the world,” if you will. Otherwise, in any other normal circumstance, it would never have evolved with out something horrifying, like looming death, to nudge them together.

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