The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Film Review: Pontypool

By Marc Savlov, March 14, 2009, 8:46am, Picture in Picture

Word up: Pontypool is one of the most original and freakily disturbing films of Canadian origin we've seen since David Crononeberg first sent Shivers up our spines. The less you know about it going in, the more you're likely to sleep with the lights on later, so we'll be circumspect regarding plot details. Suffice it to say, Pontypool leaves you feeling as though you've seen Night of the Living Dead re-conceptualized by William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard while all three of you were on bad, scary LSD at a semiotics seminar whose keynote speaker turned out to be a zombie-Hunter S. Thompson.

Adapted from Tony Burgess's cult novel Pontypool Changes Everything (which we haven't read but have moved to the very tippy-top of our Read With the Lights On pile) by Hard Core Logo-helmer and fellow Canuck Bruce McDonald, Pontypool takes place almost entirely in a bottom-rung, late night/early morning talk radio station somewhere in the Canadian hinterlands.

A grizzled, doomy-looking Stephen McHattie (Watchmen) is Grant Mazzy, a big-city shock jock who's been demoted to the lowest tier of talk radio. (We're never told why, exactly, but it's not much of a guess to surmise his acidic, lacerating on-air personality had something to do with it; his ranting is poetic, hypnotizing, and bubbling over with self-absorbed bile.) His only companions on this fateful shift are his producer Lauren Ann (Georgina Reilly) and station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and so when their local "eye in the sky" traffic reporter (who's actually reporting from a nearby hilltop, so low-rent is this operation) phones in reports of a bizarre, inexplicable "riot," all bets are off. The phone lines light up with insistent, hysterical reports of Pontypool's townspeople behaving in horrific ways, en masse, but the AP and UPI wires remains silent. What, exactly, is going on out there?

Director McDonald weaves one hell of a freaky scenario out of the three people, one unexplained event, and the audience's imagination: most of the horror in Pontypool is derived from what we hear instead of what we see, and McDonald plants the seeds of anxiety and fear of the unknown early on and then stokes up the fires of paranoia to almost unbearable levels.

Photographed with a fittingly wintery crispness by George R. Romero's Land of the Dead cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak *Pontypool* unfolds with the surreal, unstoppable narrative drift of a febrile nightmare. If Pontypool stumbles somewhat during it's third act, when a new, over-explanatory character is introduced, well, frankly the first two acts more than make up for it. In the beginning was the word, and the word will blow your mind. more than make up for it. In the beginning was the word, and the word will blow your mind.

Pontypool screens 11:59 PM, Saturday March 14th - Alamo Lamar 1 and 11:59 PM, Sunday March 15th - Alamo Lamar 1.

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