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Directed by Bruce McDonald (best known stateside for Hardcore Logo) and written by Tony Burgess, Pontypool is an unlikely candidate for one of the best horror films on the last few years. It's not particularly epic in scope, it takes place almost entirely inside a radio station, it features a very small cast and it doesn't offer up much in the way of carnage or gore. There aren't any knife wielding maniacs skulking around in the shadows nor are there any overbearing musical cues or jump scares. What the film has in spades, however, is a really foreboding sense of dread and impending claustrophobia.
The film is set in the small titular town of Pontypool, located in Northern Ontario, Canada. When it starts, a morning show disc jockey named Grant Mazzy (Steven McHattie) and his pretty young technical assistant, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) are getting ready to start their show. Their producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), rides Grant pretty hard, trying to reel him in. It seems he was let go from his last on-air position in an unnamed big city for treading into waters the station owners didn't want him in, and now he's here, possibly about to repeat some of the same mistakes. There's a bit of tension between the three of them - you can tell Laurel Ann wants Grant to be able to go off on whatever he wants, and you can tell that Sydney doesn't want to have to come down on him and you can tell Grant just wants to call it like he sees it.
The three put their differences aside, however, as soon reports start coming in from their 'eye in the sky' helicopter reporter with news of a strange riot taking place outside of the office of a Dr. Mendez. Initially they can't find any confirmation of what's happening. The three of them are stuck in the station, underground, with only their outside man's word to go off of but his reports are erratic and confusing at best. When the BBC calls the station to find out what's going on, however, they start to figure that there's got to be some truth to what they're hearing. As Grant tries to keep his cool on the air, the behavior of those around him starts to change, inexplicably at first, until a bizarre pattern develops and he and his crew find themselves surrounded by a very real danger.
Pontypool is a weird movie, one of those films that makes you think and doesn't wrap everything up all neat and tidy like with a nice little bow at the end. The film puts you in the station with the central characters and as such, we only know what they know. There aren't any pull away shots letting us know more than they do, and so as it all plays out, we're pulled along on their ride. The tension builds very quickly and very effectively, and before you know it, you're completely sucked in and on the edge of your seat. This is a film that relies as much on sound as on vision for its scares, which last right up to the finale.
Tony Burgess' script, based on his own novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, the stories moves at a good pace but doesn't overlook the characters. We learn just about Grant's past to 'get' him and little bits and pieces about Sydney's background help to make her a more likeable character as we get to know her. The premise is a deceptively simple one, but it's done with a refreshingly unique style that you don't really realize it until the movie's over and you're thinking about it. Saying much more about how the film plays out is doing a grave disservice to those who haven't seen it, as this is one of those movie that really needs to be seen knowing as little as possible beforehand, but let it suffice to say that it doesn't play out the way you think it will.
McDonald's direction is as quirky and near-brilliant as usual (those familiar with his work not only know this, but expect it from him) while the performances are strong all around. Steven McHattie is absolutely perfect in his role, as we witness his character's sense of cool unravel as the situation mounts around him, while Reilly and Houle round out the cast nicely. As the circumstances become increasingly dire, his obligation to his listener ship pushes him to stay on the air which leads to some interesting twists later in the film, all of which are handled really well.
This isn't a film that jumps off the screen at you, it creeps up subtly and sticks with you - as such, it's much more psychologically affecting than the slasher of the week ever could be. Everyone's got a fear of the unknown to a certain extent, and this is a movie that exploits that fear quite beautifully. The ending is a bit rushed (and sets up a sequel already in development) but everything else is done so well that it's easy to forgive.
IFC presents Pontypool in its original 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio in a very sharp, colorful transfer that looks very good indeed. Black levels are nice and stable and detail levels look good. Skin tones are realistic and lifelike and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to complain about. The transfer is flagged for progressive scan playback and generally looks crisp and sharp.
The sole audio track for the film is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. This is a film that, as mentioned, relies heavily on the effectiveness of its audio mix and thankfully this track doesn't disappoint. While the film doesn't lend itself to aggressive, bombastic surround usage, there's plenty of subtle rear channel activity to dig on. The dialogue, McHattie's in particular, is very smooth and concise sounding. Levels are well balanced, there are no problems to report with hiss or distortion, and all in all, the movie sound very good.
The best of the extras on this disc is a commentary track from director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess. This is a very laid back track, with the pair sounding very relaxed and having a good time chatting over the film together. There's a sense of humor right from the start as the pair talk about how the film was intended as part of the trilogy, talk about the use of the oscilloscope, discuss casting the film and talk about the writing and directing process. They talk about script revisions and different changes that were made to the picture as the creative process developed, some of the intentional awkwardness that's in the script, about the subtleties in the picture you might pick up on and more. The pair is rarely at a loss for words and this is quite an active and enjoyable track.
Also included on the DVD is the original hour long CBC radio play version of the story. This is a pretty interesting variation on the story, as obviously it's audio only, but it's remarkably effective and anyone who enjoyed the feature ought to find the time to listen to it... maybe on some headphones with the lights off for maximum effect. McHattie's voice work is just as effective here as it is in the feature and this is a pretty eerie addition to the disc. Three short films are included Eve (12:14) directed by Britt Randle, Dada Dum (8:09) also directed by Britt Randle, and The Death Of Chet Baker (7:53) directed by Robert Budreau. The three shorts don't have any obvious connection to the feature but if you're into weird, experimental shot films, they're worth checking out as each one is creative and interesting, if at times a bit pretentious. Both of Randle's films are in black and white, non-anamorphic widescreen and interlaced. Budreau's short is in full color in anamorphic widescreen, though also interlaced. A pair of trailers for the feature, some promos for other IFC DVD releases, menus and chapter stops round out the supplements. It would have been nice to hear from the cast in the extras, and a featurette or documentary would have helped, but this is still a nice collection of supplements that IFC has gathered here.
Funny, smart, and at times legitimately frightening, Pontypool is really well shot, well acted and refreshingly original. Not your typical horror film at all, it's as entertaining as it is thought provoking and IFC has done a fine job bringing this odd little picture to DVD with a nice transfer, strong audio, and a great selection of extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.