Words gone wild — Pontypool

“Horror has always worked on the idea that what is most familiar can be most frightening,” says director Bruce McDonald. “Like The Birds. It’s like, we all love birds, but what happens when they turn evil? You know what I mean? What happens when words turn evil? Well, then things get weird.”

Weird is an appropriate word to describe Pontypool, McDonald’s latest directorial effort. A mix of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and modern linguistic theory, the film is structurally simple but ideologically complex. It’s also frightening, funny and probably the best thing McDonald’s ever done.

And that’s saying something. McDonald has been a fixture on the Canadian indie film scene since his 1989 feature, Roadkill, picked up the prize for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. He struck gold again with 1996’s Hard Core Logo, a punk rock mockumentary that earned critical accolades and has maintained a cult following ever since. The Tracey Fragments, released in 2007 and starring Juno’s Ellen Page, received mixed reviews, but it was also the director’s most ambitious work. After that film’s split screens and occasionally impressionistic imagery, Pontypool’s rigidly straightforward construction is almost shocking.

“After Tracey, which was an almost baroque visual experiment in fragmentation and memory and imagination, Pontypool was such a great antidote,” McDonald explains. “It’s such a T-bone-steak-and-potato kind of thing. We were very conscious from the start, the [director of photography] and the designer, we thought, ‘let’s just press reset, pretend we’re making a film for the first time.’ We knew very much that the more the attention could be just on the performers, the better it would be. The more invisible the style was in this one, the better it would be.”

Two decades into his directorial career, McDonald is experienced enough to know that invisible doesn’t equal haphazard. Pontypool, his first horror film, is shot with an eye for detail and contains nary a wasted shot. Set almost entirely in a church basement that doubles as a talk-radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, the film makes the most of its minimal surroundings — the radio equipment is appropriately outdated, and the basement setting makes for a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere.

More than that, though, the radio station setting allows the film to focus on the power of language in our society. When bizarre things start happening around the town of Pontypool, the station’s staff must try to piece together scattered reports and under-informed news clips to figure out what’s happening outside their own front door. Based on a novel by Tony Burgess, the film was originally conceived as a radio play, and this origin comes through clearly in the tension the film wrings out of every bit of narration.

“[Burgess and I] just got talking about this idea of Grant Mazzy [the station’s morning DJ, played by Stephen McHattie], a character that sits in this glass booth, this soundproof booth, and experiences the world through his computer,” says McDonald. “He’s got a computer in there, a telephone, microphone, people talking in his ear, right? He’s this character who experiences the world in a virtual way. And that’s interesting, the fact that so many of us now experience that in a big way. We’re at work, or working on the computer, and we talk to our friends or hear about how 500 people got stampeded by cattle in India, and we go, wow, that’s fucked up. Our experience is very virtual, I guess, rather than playing baseball or fucking in the stairwell, or whatever it is that is fun.”

That everyday virtual experience is a big part of what makes Pontypool so creepy. For the technologically inclined, it’s never been easier to feel plugged into the world around you. From 24-hour cable networks to RSS feeds and compulsive Blackberry usage, it’s possible to receive up-to-the-second information about just about everything, just about everywhere. However, just as Pontypool celebrates the power of the spoken (and written) word, it also shows the limits of that power — when speech is all you have to go on, that sense of connection can be misleading.

“Are we as plugged in as we think we are?” McDonald asks. “Probably not, and it’s not for lack of technology, it’s for lack of the truth in a way. In this case, [Mazzy], for the first big chunk, he thinks this is some kind of big trick. How could this be happening? So he raises his own doubts. And then you think of all the fucking information you get from wherever, who’s to say half of it isn’t just shit? That it isn’t just people making shit up and just having a laugh? So, by being plugged in, I assume that that term means being aware in the world and having a clear relationship with what’s going on. You could just be a super-bright, engaged person, or you could just have YouTube and everything literally plugged in. But I guess it’s the difference between knowing what’s just weirdo ranting and what’s actual semi-true information.”

Without giving away too much of the film’s twist on the zombie genre, Pontypool takes the idea of warped information and warped language to an extreme. Like the best horror, it’s timely and familiar without being forced or preachy. It even touches on Canada’s seemingly eternal language conflicts, tapping into our national identity in a sly, infectious way. It’s that rarest of rare things — a Canadian film that demands to be seen, strictly on its own merits. McDonald is clearly pleased with the film’s reception so far, and he’s far from finished with the source material. Two sequels are already planned (or at least “pretty much written,”) and, assuming folks come to see the first one, McDonald knows exactly what to do.

“The first one is ‘what the fuck’s going on,’” he says of the potential trilogy. “The second one is, ‘this is what’s going on.’ And the third one is the aftermath.”

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