Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Film Review | Pontypool (2009)

The best piece of advice I was given before watching Pontypool was this: hear as little as you can about it before you watch. If you have the DVD case, don't read the back. I was advised not to and I'm incredibly glad I didn't, as the blurb gives away some key elements that need to be discovered in the order that director Bruce McDonald wants them to be revealed for the film to have the greatest impact. To hear or read too much would be to ruin the first two acts of the film which are, in truth, the strongest parts.

Pontypool focuses on ex-shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). Mazzy, having fallen from grace, has recently taken on the early morning slot at the local radio station of Pontypool, a small town in Ontario, Canada. As Mazzy does his usual schtick, amusing tech assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) and infuriating station manager Sydney (Lisa Houle), strange occurrences begin coming in on the station's news wire and listeners calling in. What Mazzy initially dismisses as a hoax soon reveals itself to be something much more chilling.

Like I said before, the first two acts of Pontypool are by far its most successful segment. Throughout the first hour, McDonald skilfully builds up a tense and incredibly human atmosphere for the story to slowly trickle into. The frosty, washed out palette the director chooses for the film emphasises the snowy isolation Pontypool and its inhabitants find themselves in, as well as giving the entire story an edge as harsh and gravelly as Mazzy's intoxicating radio voice.

The pace is also intensely and purposely decelerated in the opening acts; McDonald takes his time allowing events to unfold, allowing each intriguing revelation to germinate and mature in your mind as well as giving the film an authentic real-time feel. By placing the action almost entirely within the confines of the radio station and focusing his story on a main cast of three, McDonald refines the claustrophobic and human element even further. The telephone calls to Mazzy's show, especially those by the station's "chopper" reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), are genuinely chilling. The whole thing smacks of a director entirely aware of where he wants his audience to go and how he wants them to feel.

It's something of an anticlimax then that the final thirty minutes or so, whilst still enjoyable and well made, are not a patch on what precedes them. As is often the case in psychological horrors, the threat is never as potent once seen rather than suggested; the contrivance behind the strange goings-on in Pontypool once revealed is one of the most inventive and most outlandish I've ever come across in such a film (it's also one of those key elements you need to make sure you avoid learning before you watch). It's likely to divide the audience straight down the middle - either you'll think it's an ingenious concept, or you'll think it's a stretch too far, even for a horror flick. Whilst I sit firmly in the the former camp, even I felt that the film couldn't quite handle what it had set up.

McDonald almost feels like he's not entirely sure where to go with this unique concept he's created, and throws everything at it in the hope that something sticks. The horror conventions start to feel a bit too conventional; a romantic thread that feels decidedly out of place thankfully only rears its head a couple of times; and the introduction of a new supporting player fairly late on feels too much like deus ex machina, and the character in question (I won't reveal exactly who) never truly fits with those who are around an hour of development better off than him.

Despite its mildly underwhelming conclusion, Pontypool is a well made, stylish and worthwhile addition to the horror franchise and the zombie canon in particular, at times holding the potential of Boyle's modern classic 28 Days Later. McDonald's direction is slick and smart, and the less successful elements are vastly overshadowed but the quirky unsettling touches he litters skilfully throughout. The refusal to explain everything - one of my favourite cinematic traits when done well - works brilliantly in the film's favour, ultimately producing cerebral and brave cinema that's very enjoyable indeed.


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