Some Canadian films, like Pontypool, never cease to amaze me. Not only do they have to deal with all the limitations of being a Canadian film (specific Canadian content in order to get funding, low budgets, etc.) but they actually exploit these limitations to their advantage.

Pontypool takes place in one location: a small-town radio station. There are only three main actors: Grant (Stephen McHattie) the radio dj, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), the producer, and Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) – the station’s technician and a veteran of Afghanistan. The day at the station begins like any other – Grant talks about the current events in Pontypool, Ontario, does an interview with the local theatre troupe who are performing Lawrence of Arabia, and plays muzak between stories. Things become unsettling when the station gets word that a mob of protesters have gathered outside the office of Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak) chanting jibberish and becoming violent. Before Grant, Sydney and Laurel-Ann know it, the whole town is under quarantine after being infected by a deadly virus.

Pontypool is essentially a zombie movie – but to call it that is a disservice to what it masterfully does with genre. It would more aptly be described as a nightmare about language. What a classic Canadian concern! Language is one of the divisive factors in our nation – French vs. English – that has fueled separatist rhetoric and cultural concerns. The Official Languages Act (which ushered in bilingualism in Canada) was only adopted in 1969 – just over forty years ago! No wonder French-speaking Canadians were worried about the dilution of their culture when their language wasn’t even used by the government (or at least, only rarely). Making language the cornerstone of a horror film – Canadian content: check.

Through words and sounds the film conveys an Apocalypse raging across an entire town while taking place in a single location. No doubt part of this choice was due to budgetary constraints, but it also accentuates the entire experience of the horrifying situation the characters find themselves in. Hearing wailing screams, or the vague descriptions of a dilapidated grain silo – without actually ever seeing the action – makes these sequences more powerful because we have to imagine what is going on. We see everything – the torn flesh as a zombie tears apart the correspondent in the field, the massive crowd gathered outside Dr. Mendez’s office, and the encroaching military presence with their tear gas and whirring helicopters – without actually being shown any of it. There’s a good point in the film early on when its revealed that the radio station’s “Sunshine Chopper” is actually just a guy on top of a hill  in his truck with helicopter sound effects. Sure, it might not be a helicopter, but don’t ruin the illusion.

Of course, there are some sequences that keep the film from being perfect. An important scene between Grant and Dr. Mendez, where the cause of the virus is supposed to be explained, comes off as confusing and doesn’t have the dramatic weight that is should. Mendez’s entrance into the radio station is obviously arbitrary and rather unbelievable (his role is essentially enter through an open window, tell the characters (and the audience) his theory about the virus, and then leave through the same window after his exposition has been done). However, the central idea that guides the film is so interesting that these flaws don’t detract from the overall experience.

The great thing about some Canadian films is that the limitations imposed on them cause creative bursts of genius. In Pontypool, there is a sequence where the characters speak French as a “survival mechanism,” the Canadian anthem blares through a loudspeaker and signals the possible deaths of our leads, and the unseen military are French Canadian commandos. The rules are twisted to fit the logic of the story, rather than the story being twisted to fit the arbitrary restrictions of what it means to be a Canadian film. And these restrictions (single room, few characters, barely any special effects) benefit the filmmakers because their focus is the idea: what would happen if words triggered Armageddon? The rest of the film blossoms from there.


Another great Canadian film is Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 thriller Cube. Six strangers awaken to find themselves in a large cube filled with deadly boob-traps and no idea how to escape. Think of it like a precursor to the Saw series – except infinitely superior.

Sidenote: Director Bruce McDonald refers to the “infected” in the film as “conversationalists” rather than zombies. An interesting – and more accurate – title for the creatures.


2 Responses to Pontypool

  1. Dave says:

    I haven’t seen Pontypool yet (it’s in the queue), but I do agree that Natali’s Cube is fantastic! An underrated horror film if there ever was one. Great site!

    • Modest Movie says:

      Cube is so good. I love that it was just one set – except they just changed the wall colours to make it seem like they were in a massive complex. From what I’ve seen of the sequels, they lost the creativity of the original (perhaps because of bigger budgets). A shame, really.

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