Where would Canadian horror movies be without St. Valentine’s Day? In 1981 My Bloody Valentine, a creepy little slasher flick shot in Cape Breton, ran afoul of the ratings board but has since gone on to become a cult classic. Now a new type of terror rears its ugly head on the day Hallmark created. In Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool, the townsfolk of a small Ontario town are infected by a deadly virus on St. Valentine’s Day. A God Bug that turns them into flesh eating zombies. Not even Cupid with a quiver full of arrows can keep this town safe.
In the film’s opening minutes we meet Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a down-on-his-luck talk radio host. He’s a former big market jock reduced to working in Pontypool, a backwater station far from his last big gig. Stopped at a crosswalk on his early morning drive to work the silence of the small town is interrupted by a strange woman pounding on his passenger side window, speaking nonsense. Perturbed, he continues on to work and turns the strange encounter into a topic for his show. “When do you call 911?” Soon though, troubling reports of rioting in the town’s core start pouring in. When the reports turn ominous Mazzy realizes he is at the center of a big story and keeps broadcasting. What he doesn’t realize is that, perhaps, he is helping to spread the disease.
To call Pontypool a zombie movie isn’t quite accurate. Sure the movie is about a disease that turns regular people into flesh eating creeps, but it’s more about how they became that way than the eerie aftereffects of the sickness. Set entirely inside a small radio station in the basement of a church, the story focuses on Mazzy, his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and call screener Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who use eye witness accounts to slowly piece together the horrible story that is happening outside their doors.
We’re barely given a glimpse of the zombies, which is good for those with weak stomachs, but may disappoint hardcore George A. Romero fans who expect blood and guts. MacDonald, however, has reinvented the wheel by replacing the gore with brain matter, but the kind you think with, not eat. MacDonald captures horror in mostly subtle ways. In his film a broken window with blood dripping from a shard of glass becomes a chilling symbol of the violence that we never see.
At the center of Pontypool’s cerebral thrills is Stephen McHattie. The actor best known for playing Dr. Reston on four classic episodes of Seinfeld carries the entire picture on his back and it is his intense performance that makes up for the lack of gory thrills. As the grizzled Mazzy his face is so lined, so etched with life experience that lost travelers could use it as a road map. It’s not the face of a hero and that edge gives the film some of its great moments. This is a guy who drinks scotch in his morning coffee and likes to break the rules. How he will react in the face of a virus spread by the spoken word when all he really knows how to do is talk keeps the story unpredictable and compelling.
Pontypool is a movie set in a radio station that plays like a radio show. By and large the action is described and for once the old cliché that what you can’t see is more terrifying that what you can actually see rings true. Couple that with a mounting sense of doom and you have an edge of your seat thriller.