Friday, January 29, 2010

Shut Up, Already, or Die

I will change up the theme around here in a day or two I swear but I wanted to talk about one last zombie film before I change the subject and lose my train of thought. I can't tell you how many times I've sat on films because I was in the middle of a theme month or some such thing (my apologies to Horrors of Malformed Men, The Hanging Woman, Let's Scare Jessica To Death and the works of Dario Argento). Anyway today I want to look at a film that illustrates a point about auteurism and about the communicative powers of various medium. It is crucial in evaluating genre films, especially those made by outsiders, to look at the history of those people making that. It provides context and helps explain the uniqueness of many a directorial vision. A ghost story told by a committed B-movie madman like Teruo Ishii (apologies once again to Horrors of Malformed Men) is going to be fundamentally different than one by Nagisa Oshima. Similarly a story made for radio has to take on different qualities than one written for TV or Film. In Dead Set, a TV mini-series made for British Television about zombies, a producer takes the notion of exploiting young bodies to the extreme when he literally cuts up one of the cast of Big Brother with a serrated knife. Today's film, Pontypool utilizes a similar media-specific modus operandi. I'd been wanting to see Pontypool since it hit last year's Independent Film Festival in Boston but because it was playing at midnight and seeing as someone was living on their friend Rachel's couch and couldn't secure a ride back to the apartment, someone couldn't go. At the end of last summer I went to Toronto to interview musicians for a work-in-progress documentary and had an appointment to interview Pontypool's director, Canadian rock documentarian and creator of the occasional quirky drama Bruce McDonald, but he had just been dicked over by someone in the press and wasn't doing interviews - the very nice people in his production crew gave me an advance DVD copy for my troubles. And just to show I harbour no resentment I'll say now that his movie is a solid B+ and I had a blast watching it with my friends when I came home I've just been waiting for an opportunity like this one to talk about it. Pontypool illustrates perfectly that a horror film, and a zombie film in particular, is the perfect medium by which to dissect the baggage and style of a director.

Pontypool
by Bruce McDonald
Grant Mazzy is what I believe what you call a Shock Jock. He's a morning DJ fired from whatever big city he came from (one assumes Victoria or Toronto). In exile in the small town of Pontypool, Grant's new boss is Sydney Briar who's more concerned with her star not pissing anyone in town off by giving them his savvy big city paranoia and smarmery than with giving Grant enough space to work. Pontypool is a one-horse town (the pilot of the weather chopper is really reporting from his Dodge Dart parked on a hill overlooking the town) and it clearly cramps Mazzy's style; he's depressed as hell and nearing the winter of his life but there isn't much he can do about it. Little does he know that relief is on the way in the least likely and most horrific way imaginable. A little into his morning broadcast Grant starts getting reports about isolated acts of violence. First, word reaches them about what appears to be either a hostage situation or just some drunken ice fisherman making cops nervous, but the suspects run off before they're apprehended. Then the police call to tell them to drop the story. Next a mob of hundreds of people starts swarming a doctor's office. It starts off peculiarly but then gets violent as the weatherman reports that the mob is trampling people but he gets cut off before he can figure out what the hell's going on.

Grant naturally wants to pursue the story but at the moment the weatherman gets cut off the morning's guests arrive, cutting short his attack. The group (a strange family singing group modeled on Lawrence of Arabia, one of whom is screenwriter Tony Burgess, who also wrote the book Pontypool is based on) sings a song but towards the end one of the younger girls starts talking in circles and stops making sense. It throws Grant, but a witness to the mob calls in and he's forced to forget it. The caller gets nothing but a piercing shriek out before the call is cut off. Sydney and Laurel-Ann the radio technician try to get someone, anyone on the phone but can't. When a coherent report finally comes in, it appears that over 75 people are dead and the attackers were all chanting something. Next they hear that a family was trapped in their car while dozens of people covered it and imitated the sound of the windshield wipers. Soon the BBC are calling wanting the story from Grant, who turns out to be the last person on the air in the area while the crisis grows in size. When the weatherman gets through, he is in mortal terror and babbling about cannibals and people with animalistic eyes, soon he's close enough to see a neighborhood boy with no hands who's whispering something to himself but the line goes dead just after this. Another signal breaks into their live feed, a male voice reads something in French and then disappears. I won't tell you what it says other than that it ends with "Don't translate this message."
Pontypool is an incredibly interesting movie and I want to get to the things it does right so I'll start with my few complaints. As much as I do hate to generalize there is a kind of static, slowness to the film that one can't help but attribute to its country of origin. There are moments where the frame is way too vacant, which sucks all the tension out of the scene and the stuff towards the end suffers greatly because of this. The film's low budget is in evidence but I honestly don't think that has much to do with it because one of Pontypool's most effective strategies is that it all takes place in the church basement that Grant's show is broadcast out of. Beyond that what I could have used more of was on-screen violence. When the zombies do show up, they don't do much making them not as much a threat as they were off-screen, which was a bummer. McDonald creates palpable dread with just phone calls so it was disappointing when he couldn't reproduce it in the flesh. Overall the film just isn't quite as well made as it ought to have been and drops the ball when it most needs to balance it (also never wild about last-minute romantic subplots, least of all when Stephen McHattie is called on to kiss someone), but it does more than make up for its shortcomings in many respects; Pontypool is a quite unsettling and really intelligent movie.

Tony Burgess' script is loaded with fascinating ideas and little details about the titular town that are not ladled out in liberal portions. The exposition goes by quickly - in fact the rapid-fire dialogue is one of the film's recurring and most interesting motifs. Something is always happening and there is more than one thing to pay attention to at any given moment; if you're not quick something's going to pass you by. That Pontypool doesn't mince words is one of its strong suits; this must be one of the only zombie films in which someone doesn't sit around discussing something the audience clearly already knows. When there is exposition it's two-fold and handled extremely well. The first comes from the many phone calls and reports that Grant and Sydney have to then make sense of as the plot ever so slowly starts to make sense. Pontypool owes a good deal to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast but it also has enough ideas to not seem like imitation. But still, a War of the Worlds-inspired Zombie movie? What about that doesn't sound awesome? It's when the calls start to come in that the strength of the performances is shown. In a film in which most of the dialogue is with people we never see, voice acting is absolutely crucial and the callers do a splendid job. If even one of the emergency calls seemed inauthentic the film wouldn't have been as effective but everyone's call is really quite spooky. Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly are all also great as our leads; Reilly and Houle have the thankless straight roles but were it not for their perfect nonchalance the horror wouldn't be nearly as thrilling. Next is when Dr. Mendez shows up with his theory and that's when the movie enters modern classic territory. I don't want to ruin it for you but it is, to my knowledge, the only film that has used this particular method of explaining zombies.
When you discover what's causing all the chaos you realize why only someone like Bruce McDonald could have made this movie. McDonald got his start making films about rock music so that his first horror film should take such a bent is logical. The very nature of the explanation is funnily enough also intrinsically Canadian (it has to do with the dual cultures). So really what I mean is that under no other circumstances could Pontypool have been made and you know something really different is happening as you watch it. Furthermore once you know the secret, it makes for exciting repeat viewings as you scour the opening scenes for clues. Pontypool is a movie with very interesting ideas and is effectively a commentary on modern media, and the nature of emergency coverage. And in between it also manages to tell a story about community and about the sting of hasbeendom - McDonald's rock movies have covered the issue before but never quite like this. Pontypool balances its humour and horror pretty well and thanks to its eeriness and subtlety and the personality of its leading man I was at times reminded of some of Val Lewton's movies (Cat People, Bedlam, The Ghost Ship), and if McDonald were out to make a more direct homage, I might even forgive his use of the romantic subplot. With some very interesting concepts being given the breadth of consideration they deserve under McDonald's efficient if broad direction, Tony Burgess' fascinating screenplay and with loads of help from Miroslaw Baszak's moody cinematography, Steve Munro's excellent sound design and a host of great performances, Pontypool is one of the most intriguing and endearing zombie films of the decade.