I was going to save Pontypool for Halloween day, considering that the movie is, for the most part, presented as a filmed play, and had its origins as a novel that was then adapted into a movie. The film also takes place in a static location, a local radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, Canada, and has a resemblance to the infamous radio play presentation of Orson Welle’s production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This is because the drama unfolds primarily offscreen from the main narrative that takes place in radio station. The first thing I thought was “Oh, this has an Orson Wells kind of thing…” And because the primary action takes place offscreen, we get to let our imaginations run amok with the action taking place outside of our awareness.
The story is rather simple, a disgraced shock jock, Grant Mazzy, played by veteran badass and character actor Stephen McHattie, who is relegated to a small market radio station in Pontypool. It’s not the type of market share audience he’s used to catering to, and he’s kinda pissed that he has sunk so low as to do local radio when he was previously a king of syndicated radio. His producer and phone screener think he’s all bark and no bite, until he is chastised for trying to oversell one news story and under sell a developing story. He barks at them, stating that he knows how to draw an audience and that they should be grateful that he deigns to work for them. But then he realizes that he should watch his words when the once-marginalized developing story of a traffic incident has metastasized into a full scale event in the making. The “eye in the sky” traffic reporter is mocked on air by Mazzy, and later becomes the true eyes for the situation. This shift sets Mazzy in his place and he learns to show a modicum of respect for those he works with, even though the traffic reporter is a guy in his car, parked atop a hill and mixing a helicopter sound effect for good measure.
What works about this movie is how trim and efficient the narrative is, operating in a minimalist environment, a tight collection of players who react to a growing threat outside, only able to react and not affect any change. They are relatively helpless for most of the movie, and it is only until the perceived source of the problem shows up. He unloads a massive amount of exposition, but it is completely welcomed and necessary, considering the dearth of details up to that point. This character, Dr. Mendez, whose medical practice is initially identified as the locus of this emerging event, initially described as an explosion born out of a riot. This is later thought to be a biological virus, but Dr. Mendez reveals that the root cause of the riots and the violent outbreaks around the city as a verbal virus. The virus is rooted in the linguistic structure of communication and words, thereby implanting itself in any iteration of commonly used words, leading to a self-destructive pattern of violence as the linguistic virus seeks to continue itself.
The notion of a virus that is not biological in nature, but one that is just as destructive is to me one of the freshest takes on the viral outbreak concept. If there’s more non-traditional outbreak stories, I need to find them. I mean, consider how much we rely on speech and linguistic patterns to effectively communicate. Our brains can decipher variations, but after a while, it can be overwhelming to rely solely on that aspect. In this doomsday scenario, a very basic form of communication is reduced to gibberish and eventual violence and death. The eventual “solutions” found for the people trapped in the radio station are interesting and give a touch of hope. But the audio epilogues aren’t as reassuring. Deciding to put this on Hallow’s Eve or on Halloween was a tough decision, but it shouldn’t be a tough decision to watch Pontypool. Killing is kissing, kissing is killing.