Pontypool (2008, Bruce McDonald)

“What we need is a flamethrower.”


Apparently this played in one theater for one week before going to “VOD” (whatever that is). I don’t know anyone who has this “VOD,” which was also the rumored resting place of Maddin’s My Winnipeg, and where all Soderbergh’s movies are said to be sent the same day as their theatrical releases. Is it something you watch on those portable playstation games? Is it a website? Can I get an invite? Not willing to buy a satellite dish or a fiber-optic link to hollywood or whatever I’d need, I borrowed a copy of the movie from a connected friend to close out this year’s successful SHOCKtober season. Sorry, Mr. McDonald, but rest assured I’ll be buying the movie and the book as soon as I figure out how.

“Mrs. French’s cat is missing” says a sinister voice as a blue waveform bounces across the wide screen, before the title breaks through in a blue vortex, each letter appearing from the inside out until it spells TYPO a few seconds before PONTYPOOL. What with the movie’s play with language, that can’t be accidental.


Next half (or more) of the film has fallen big-city talk-radio DJ Grant Mazzy in his sound booth, with his producer Sydney Briar (great names) and assistant Laurel Ann sitting in the main room. It’s snowing and damn cold outside, it’s early morning, and Grant is trying to show off his “take no prisoners” attitude and start rumors. The camera is always gliding at a constant speed, which kinda bugs me though I can’t think of a more pleasing alternative offhand. Gradually we start to hear of a disturbance in town, “herds” of people banding together and murmuring, breaking into buildings and tearing residents apart. The descriptions get weirder, until Grant is saying things like this on the air: “That was our own Ken Loney interviewing a screaming baby coming from Mary Gault’s eldest son’s last dying gasps.”

The actions outside are so disturbing and unbelievable, that by this point characters and viewer are dying to break out of the radio station and walk around – but we never do. Instead the herd tries to break in, preceded by the slightly loopy Dr. Mendez who may know how the whole thing started (he tells us it’s a virus infecting words in the English language) but is never given enough time to explain himself because Laurel Ann becomes infected. They stay in the sound booth, depriving her of language to feed off, until she explodes.


More word games, and then Grant (who, as a popular talk radio host, may have been helping spread the virus all morning) comes up with a cure that doubles as a last-minute romantic ending, defamiliarizing the infected word, changing its meaning. “Kill is kiss, kill is kiss” makes me think of Killer’s Kiss.

I wasn’t aware of Stephen McHattie though I’ve seen him before. He went from playing James Dean in a 70’s TV biopic, to Canadian thrillers in the 80’s, to a ton of TV and voice (no surprise) acting, to A History of Violence and The Fountain to major roles in Hollywood action flicks (300, Shoot ’em Up, Nite Owl in Watchmen). McDonald is known for a handful of cult road flicks and the interesting-sounding The Tracey Fragments, and also directs a ton of TV. I’d only seen his short Elimination Dance, but will be seeking out more.


McDonald: “Zombies are undead and these people are not. They’re people who have difficulty expressing themselves. It’s a very common, very modern virus.”

AV Club:

Primarily though, the film works as a tour de force for McHattie – a veteran character actor making the most of his character’s long, fluid monologues – and as a sly commentary on journalistic responsibility. At first, McHattie seems to enjoy anchoring a broadcast that’s drawing international attention, but throughout, his conscientious producer Lisa Houle pesters him about whether it’s really appropriate for him to be goosing the drama, as when he urges the station’s field reporter to get closer to the monsters. There’s a lot of subtext in Pontypool (and some of it isn’t so “sub”) about how meaningless conversation can be a kind of plague. Yet the greater evil may be the words that sound meaningful, but are really just diverting.

from D. Cairns short but essential interview with the director:

DC: The very idea of a “war on terror” is a very Pontypool idea, the war against an abstract concept or word.

MACDONALD: Right. So our ideas naturally come out about the manufacturing of fear by the American media […] the co-opting of certain words by the media, to label people or things. And it’s in a very sly and damaging way, often. “Pedophile” is a popular word, as a weapon, you know. To suddenly hint at that, you could destroy somebody. With something as simple as “You know, I heard he was a pedophile…” It just shows how powerful certain words are. Language is so loaded with great shit, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches for us, to know how to place some of these things. And there’s kind of a cultural thing too, like when the BBC guy comes on, everybody’s like, “Oh my god, we’ve got the real guy on!” you know? It’s like these backwoods colonial guys listening to the real deal. It’s such a cultural thing, with the French-English in Canada. And suddenly these sovereigntists or separatists become “terrorists,” that easy slip, how easy that is… “Oh, I’ve never heard the French ‘Quiet Revolution’ referred to as ‘terrorists’ in Quebec.” But you could…

DC: And a violent riot becomes an “insurgency.”

MACDONALD: Yeah yeah. So you start to see how just choice of words, there’s a certain WAY that the media talks, to create a drama, to create an ongoing story. … Myself having worked in the media for so long, you have an inside view of how these things go on.

Good news:

May 16, 2009
Acclaimed director Bruce McDonald returns to the director’s chair with Pontypool Changes, a sequel to his highly anticipated psychological thriller Pontypool. Producer Jeffrey Coghlan confirmed rumors in Cannes today that the Pontypool sequel is scheduled to lens in early 2010, reuniting McDonald with Pontypool screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the original from his book “Pontypool Changes Everything”.

Author Tony Burgess shares a name with the author of A Clockwork Orange, another sci-fi novel interested in language.

From Bruce’s interview with Twitch:

– Let’s talk about the after the credits scene, the cookie.
– That used to be end of the movie, but before the credits. And people thought, what? What? Too much confusion. There is a tradition now where you have something at the end of the credits where you have an outtake, or hint of a sequel. The existence for it is sort of buried in there, well the title of the book sort of suggests it, Pontypool Changes Everything, and one of the things I’ve always love about the notion of this, is that the virus could affect something as abstract as the English language. It can leap into reality itself, change the fabric of how reality is perceived.

OCT 2017: Watched again in HD, still the best.

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