One of the hardest things to do well is a chamber play. It is the choice to tell a big story with a very small cast, few props, one set, and little to no costume changes. The idea is to elevate human drama as the focus of theater of film. Far too often, the form just points out the flaws in the writing.
Pontypool is the first real chamber horror movie I’ve encountered. There are three principle characters onscreen for the entire film. The reason it works so well is the conceit of the story.Pontypool is a small town in Ontario, Canada with a very skilled radio host named Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). He specializes in going for the kill, so to speak, on a breaking news story. He’ll turn a lost kitten poster into a rant about the degradation of society. His producer Sidney Briar (Lisa Houle) does not approve of the tactic but knows he gets ratings for the station.
When an actual shocking news story about the degradation of society breaks out, Mazzy is told to stall and stretch with fluff. Briar and radio employee Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) try to find real evidence to go with. It seems that a riot broke out in front of the office of a controversial doctor and neither the police nor the military can contain its spread.What makes Pontypool work is the radio conceit. It’s a chamber play that cheats just a little bit with voice overs. Various townspeople call in to discuss the riots as they unfold. A reporter from the BBC calls up to gather evidence for his own story. A small vocal ensemble shows up for a scheduled interview/performance. And their helicopter riding weather reporter tries to follow the story while staying out of harm’s way. Each new voice on the radio advances the plot and adds variety to the cast.
Tony Burgess adapts a very literary story from his own novel into something that mostly works onscreen. Everything in Pontypool comes down to a play on language. From “crazy talk” that spreads throughout reports to the choice of rhetoric on the air, the film is a horror story about the ambiguity of the English language. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person and you could convince them to do something bad. Saying “don’t get any closer” can be all someone needs to take that extra step into danger.
The allure of radio and its potential audience only complicates matters further. You lie about the news on the radio–say the wrong thing–and you can make a bad situation much worse.
Of course, when you deal with a story about going language down to grammatical structure and phonemes, you’re probably better off sticking to the written medium. There is a turn in the story leading into the third act that feels very out of place. The cast sells it hard, but I feel like there had to be another way to go about it. It arches back around to a good point but goes way too theoretical to sell as big enough for a movie.
Pontypool is an exciting and novel horror film. There is no denying that. It’s also quiet, slow, and deeply psychological. If you expect horror to have blood, guts, and action galore, you’ll tune out before you even see a papercut onscreen. Pontypool gets there, but it does it at its own pace. A news story doesn’t parse itself out in fifteen minutes. Why should a horror film about the creation and dissemination of news move any faster?
Thoughts on Pontypool. A few people have been pushing me to see it for years and I only just got around to it on Netflix. Have you seen it? Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?