Well, here’s something I’ve been meaning to write for about five months. The film Pontypool is pretty old news now: I originally heard about it in early 2010 due to its appearance on a ‘Best Horror of 2009’ list, and its original theatrical release was almost two years ago. Question of timeliness aside, I think Pontypool is one of the most interesting horror films I’ve seen in some years and easily worthy of being written about.
The film is almost entirely set within a single building, the local radio station of Pontypool, Ontario (a real and otherwise not notable town), focusing on a handful of core characters. These are Grant Mazzy, the recently hired, hard-drinking, cynical yet idealistic host of an early morning show; Sydney Briars, Mazzy’s Producer and handler – constantly trying to keep Mazzy on-message – and Laurel Anne, a production assistant recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Other characters are briefly featured, some only appearing as calls in to the station.
To briefly recap the film’s plot: Mazzy is on his way into work in the midst of a snowstorm. Whilst waiting at lights he encounters an apparently distressed woman who repeats the words “who are you” at him before vanishing into the night. (Later, her voice can be heard again, near the station – a portent of things to come.) Ignoring this odd event Mazzy heads on to the run-down station and prepares for another night’s work: a bottle of whiskey, arguments with Sydney about what he should be talking about, inane reportage on local colour, and mild flirting with Laurel-Anne.
This is not what unfolds. Within about fifteen minutes the first suggestion that something is awry emerges. Several members of staff have yet to appear at the station. Soon after, transmissions over the police band mention a disturbance. A code 48, a van full of people, a hut being towed, guns and then no guns, suspects being taken into custody, others fleeing… there is a lot of confusion and although the situation appears to be resolved, tensions are heightened. There is still a sense that something is wrong, that something more is to come. ‘Roving reporter’ Ken Loney calls the station, reporting an impossible mass of people around a local doctor’s building – one Doctor John Mendez, who is under investigation for unnecessary prescriptions. Loney describes an “explosion” of people – an impossible mass erupting from the building – and army trucks and helicopters heading in.
At this point the emerging story – that clearly has Mazzy captivated and all four members of staff concerned – is interrupted as a local family in costume appear for their appointment to sing live on air. Mazzy is contemptuous but at Sydney’s assistance complies, and so ensues an absurd scene whereby these costumed weirdos – who, it must be emphasised, have dressed up for radio – cram themselves into the booth and perform appalling renditions of songs from Lawrence of Arabia. But even this absurd moment of levity is shattered, the unfolding events brought back to the fore, when a little girl from the troupe begins to lose it. “I can’t remember how it ends,” she says, before repeating “Pra. Pra. Pra. Pra. Pra.” She’s obviously distressed and afraid, not understanding the verbal tics and loops which she is exhibiting.
From this point on I have to emphasise that I am not reviewing this film, but rather discussing it, so spoiler warnings are issued. I do not recommend reading on if you have not seen the film; hopefully what I’ve described so far has piqued your interest enough that you will go and check it out.
So, now everyone reading this knows the nature of the epidemic sweeping through Pontypool. To quote director Bruce McDonald:
“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.”
It’s an idea that I find fascinating. It’s obviously a take on the zombie mythos but one which tries to step away from the cliché of the dead reanimated by dark magic, disease, possession or alien microbes, instead trying to reimagine it in a way not dissimilar to 28 Days Later – which also offered a different take on the zombie genre by featuring a zombie horde which was not actually dead and, terrifyingly, could run and attack at a ferocious pace. But in Pontypool the infected are not just mindless savages charging about at a relentless sprint; something far more fundamentally horrifying is broken. Their brain has become stuck in a loop, infected by a sort of memetic virus transmitted by language, and as a result of these loops they have become mentally unstuck, able to focus only on how they might break out of this loop. They imitate the voices they hear, unable to properly articulate anything themselves, and attack the uninfected in an insane attempt to burrow themselves free from binding insanity.
It’s an idea that I find horrifying on a level more fundamental than the primal fear response manipulated by monster or slasher films. Rather, Pontypool can be regarded as a fusion of monster-horror and psychological-horror genres. This is not in itself exceptional but the film literalises psychological horror and builds of that a fantastical monster. It features the creation of a new and terrifying horror archetype, which like Frankenstein and Dracula and early zombies myths in their time represents a deep-seated but contemporary human fear brought into terrible form.
Recently I’ve argued with a friend – a dedicated horror fan – about whether or not Pontypool is a horror film. His argument, and I hope I’m fairly representing this, was that Pontypool is not a scary film; it cannot be considered horror because it does not invoke fear. To him, there was no immediate sense of threat. And in some ways this is an understandable response, because Pontypool is a sedate film with few viscerally shocking moments, monsters that are easily tricked or avoided, and very little in the way of gore and violence. By the standards of those desensitised to the brutal excesses of the horror genre, and by the standards against which most horror films are judged, Pontypool does not invoke fear.
My argument to the contrary was essentially that Pontypool is horrifying on a far deeper level. Scares and gore are parlour tricks; weird movie monsters are the imaginative and fantastical creations of special effects departments and usually play on zoophobic tendencies; slasher films are all too often a cartoonish misrepresentation of real serial killers. What makes Pontypool terrifying is that its infection destroys a person through a rapid process which leaves them fully aware and alive but irreversibly broken. It takes away from them something so fundamental that it is impossible to imagine any semblance of human life without it: the twin powers of language and thought. And, unlike many threats in the horror genre, it cannot be stopped, and it will not go away. There is no source carrier from whom to synthesise a retroviral. There is no possibility of adapting modern medicine to repair it. There is no way to halt its spread other than to eliminate the infected and entirely end the use of an entire language. It’s the emergence of a whole new lifeform, a memetic virus that has evolved to reproduce itself through human speech. And there is no reason to believe that it would not evolve further of necessity, moving between languages.
As in all of the best zombie films its spread is inexorable, but whereas over hundreds of works of zombie fiction we’ve worked out how such an outbreak would be survivable or even stoppable, Pontypool’s linguistic virus would take away the one thing we could always count on to help us endure. Our ability to organise and discuss, to support one another in times of need, to share terms of love and endearment and humour – all gone.
The one small element of hope comes towards the end of the film, where Sydney has all but given up. Drunk and desperate, she begins talking in English, abandoning the pact she and Mazzy had made to speak sparingly and only in French. At this time Mazzy is listening to Nigel Healing’s message and trying to understand or discern a cure – aware that something must be possible thanks to the odd behaviour of John Mendez. It comes to him suddenly, and at the perfect time. Sydney is infected with the word “kill”, her speech suddenly stumbling, increasingly repeating the word as she attempts to force her words out and arrive at meaning. Desperate, Mazzy explains that it is in understanding a word that the virus is copied, so to prevent infection you must not understand a word. How is this achived? By making it strange; not understanding a word disinfects it. You kill the word to kill the virus. Repeat it until it’s incomprehensible: the repetition, the verbal tic that is symptomatic of infection, is the brain’s immune response to the virus. It’s a simple and apposite solution – as a child, who hasn’t written the same word a hundred times until it looks wrong, until the meaning is lost and there is only a pattern of lines and curves?
The film ends with Mazzy desperately trying to transmit news of his cure to the world, but he does so in English and his message sounds like the ravings of a madman. The Canadian government’s demands – in French – that he stop broadcasting go ignored, and the film ends with the roar of jets to the deadly rhythm of a countdown. Over the credits we hear the story continue: the military response was inadequate. The virus is loose in the wider world. But Mazzy’s last broadcast was heard, and perhaps understood by some. The last of these broadcasts is simply the word “Pontypool”, repeated over and over.
Inexplicably the film features a post-credits scene, presented in black and white but fading into colour, with Grant and Sydney dressed like movie gangsters. I confess I don’t understand this scene, unless it is meant as a tongue-in-cheek coda to the idea that the virus can only be defeated when you stop making sense.
Pontypool is a brilliant film which does a great deal with very little. It reinvents a monster and in so doing reinvigorates it. It builds tension by letting a story unfold at a focal nexus where information gathers – but where that information cannot necessarily be understood or acted upon. It ties its cast and its location in with its horror conceit by making its protagonists among those most vulnerable to – and perhaps most prone to transmit – the memetic virus. Its genius lies in the way it alludes to things; it implies them but rarely states or shows them. This applies to both the low-budget direction and the inherent mysteriousness of how its story is told from a distance. The fear that Pontypool produces grows through our lack of knowing about what is happening, and when we begin to understand what is unfolding it becomes all the more horrifying because it is not a threat that can be combated through traditional means. The way out of most horror scenarios is to think rationally. Not here. Here you can only stop making sense.
[Pontypool is based on the 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Anthony Burgess, which will be appearing on a reading list near me very soon. At the moment the website of original publishers ECW is down, so here’s a link to it a ChiZine Publications instead.]