I may love the art of film, but one genre that I haven't expressed much passion for in recent years is the genre of horror. Recently, I feel the genre as a whole has grown tired and stagnant through a barrage of boring cliches, over-reliance on jump-scares, and lack of any memorable substance worth returning to. There have, of course, been a few exceptions in recent years; 2014's It Follows was a fun little flick that breathed some life into the horror genre. However, today, I'm going to talk about a film arguably more obscure than that: 2008's Canadian horror film Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald.
Technically, this film isn't that recent in terms of release (I had to remind myself that 2008 was ten years ago at the time of writing this review) but I still feel like it is recent enough to be a part of the newer end of horror flicks. And what a flick it is. I like to be flexible in terms of my expectations for a film. I went into this film not expecting anything that intricate or mind-blowing other than a good time. Whilst this film certainly is a good time, I was taken aback by how impressed I was with the film's general aesthetic and storytelling techniques. Taking place in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, the film follows a local radio station's perception of a virus turning the normal people of Pontypool into cannibalistic, zombie-like creatures. Only there's a twist. The infection is spread through language. The English language to be precise. The virus infects occupants by latching onto a certain word spoken and understood by them. Once infected, the occupants look to kill themselves by killing others. This is an incredibly refreshing and unique concept and one that the film pulls off masterfully and with extreme elegance. The first half of the film contains many of the best moments and scenes, in my opinion. We stick with the three employees of the radio station as they are fed information from the outside world about riots breaking out. Only this information starts to sound more twisted and deranged as we hear the horrific events unfold over low-quality phone speakers. We are left with only our imaginations and the reactions of the employees at the station, and it is an incredible piece of cinema. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when a field reporter for the station feeds back audio of an adult infected person ("Conversationalists", as they're referred to in the film's credits.) helplessly speaking the word that infected them, except this adult male has the voice of a baby crying for its mother. The only visual cues available are the reactions of the film's main character, Grant Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie. He listens to the audio, eyes wide in confusion, bewilderment, and fear, the camera catching every bit of sweat rolling down his forehead. It's a magnificently executed scene that had me holding my breath and eyes wide just like Grant himself. The film sometimes resorts to jump-scares to scare the viewer (though not as poorly executed as some other films), however this scene just lets the fear and dread instilled by this unsettling audio settle in, a fine example of more lacking approach to heighten the fear and anxiety levels of the viewer.
I must also praise the visual style of this film. Shots are slow and linger on each character and their reactions. The camera pans across steadily in some scenes when no one is even moving to keep adrenaline-levels high but in a very subtle approach. The muted colour palette really works in the film's favour too. Characters are bathed in pale lighting against darkened backgrounds, making even the uninfected characters look ill or sickly. When one employee gets infected and starts bleeding from the mouth, the crimson red blood dripping down her chin against her grey face makes for an extremely haunting image, one that utilises the mixing of colours to create a jarring visual moment.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film is noticeably worse than the first. Though the conversationalists spouting random words and sentences whilst trying desperately to kill the employees never fails to be creepy, the film cannot be saved by an ending that doesn't really lead anywhere. After saving fellow employee Sydney Briar, played by Lisa Houle, from infection by changing her understanding of her infected word (a solution that doesn't make much sense), Grant believes he can save the rest of infected Pontypool by broadcasting random words and changing their meanings over radio broadcast. Then, the film just ends as the station is presumably bombed by the military. It is an unsatisfactory ending that doesn't make much sense, and the parts that do make sense aren't enough to wrap the film up with a satisfactory conclusion.
Overall, Pontypool is a fantastic watch. Whilst undeniably a horror film, the way it utilises its conventions in a refreshing way with a unique concept is admirable. There are plenty of tense scenes where the viewer will certainly be on the edge of their seat, and for good reason. This film is a masterclass in suspenseful and dread-filled film-making, though the second half cannot make up for the first half, finishing the film off with a lacklustre ending that leaves a lot to be desired.
SCORE: 7 out of 10.