Stephen McHattie also pwns! “Pontypool”

December 3, 2012

pontypool_ver2Is there anything better than finding a diamond in the rough?  Well, okay, maybe winning the PowerBall or getting elected Space Pope or finding out that your Match.com date is actually Freema Agyemon…and she’s really into cosplay….erg…Sorry, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, unexpected treasures you find on Netflix Instant. Well, that’s exactly how I would describe the 2008 Canadian horror/thriller Pontypool. After untold hours spent sifting through the assorted detritus of streaming-video purgatory (i.e. most of the month of October), my faith in cinema was rewarded by a legitimately excellent low-budget chiller that kept me on the edge of my seat to the very last frame of the credits.

Okay, so I can only go so far with Pontypool because I want you to see this movie. Seriously, if it wasn’t cost-prohibitive, and I think illegal (?), I would come into your home and make you watch it Clockwork Orange-style (yeah, that’s illegal). Anyway, let’s get to it.

So, Pontypool  is the name of a small town in Ontario (that’s in Canada), where a gone-to-seed  radio DJ named Grant Mazzy (an excellent Stephen McHattie—more on him later), hosts a daily radio show. Grant’s best wild-man days are clearly behind him, as his impassioned pleas to his agent to get him a new gig gets answered with, essentially, “be glad you’re working, bro.” Consequently, his show is a continual tightrope-walk between his increasingly go-to-hell indifference for his show and its listeners and his level-headed producer, Sydney (Lisa Houle).

Alas, from the beginning, it becomes clear that this day will not be ordinary. First off, a blizzard has moved in. Second off, as he drives to work, Grant is accosted by a strange woman who approaches his car, urgently babbling gibberish before she disappears back into the snow. When Grant gets to work and begins his kamikaze run of a program, the weird reports begin to come in.

It begins, arrestingly enough,  with a report from their weather correspondent (a guy in his car, who pipes in helicopter noises so people think the station has a weather chopper), who is witnessing a seeming riot at the office of a doctor who is under investigation for writing bad scripts. Except the riot becomes a mob—literally hundreds of people—swarming the doctor’s office, piling inside until their sheer mass crushes one another and bursts through the walls of the building.

Other similar reports begin coming in, from various citizens, describing the same thing. Except those reports don’t stay on the line very long. There are also reports of the military establishing roadblocks to lock down the town. Now at this point, you’re probably thinking—like I was—zombie outbreak. Except the reports belie that.

The swarms are clearly living people, and they’re doing some un-zombie-like stuff. First off, they’re alive. They’re attacking people, yes, but not really eating them. They’re killing people, sure, tearing them apart. But they seem to be trying to tear into the people through their mouths, and they’re urgently repeating random phrases—mostly nonsense—like U-Boat. The wires aren’t carrying anything, but a BBC correspondent calls in, postulating that it’s a French-Canadian uprising (which makes no sense whatsoever). And then the Quebecois military broadcast comes through, warning people to barricade their homes, and—weirdly—to avoid getting too close to family members and avoid using terms of endearment. Also, not to translate that broadcast in English.

And that’s all I’m gonna tell. Except to say that when the threat is revealed in the second act, it first seems a bit of a let-down, but then—to Pontypool’s credit—actually becomes more engaging and thought-provoking. Seriously, the implications raised by this film will rattle around in your brain for a long while after it’s done.

All this carnage is piped in to the radio station—a set the movie wisely never leaves—and the movie works brilliantly as a low-budget thriller, channeling Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in a manner that would make ol’  Orsi proud.

Moreover, it’s anchored by some amazing performances, not the least of which is a revelatory lead performance by McHattie. If you don’t know the name, you’ll remember the face. He’s a perpetual “that guy,” probably best-known as Hollis Mason—Nite Owl 1—from Watchmen, but a quick look at the dude’s IMDB page confirms that if you’ve watched anything on a screen in the past 20 years, you’ve seen this guy dozens of times. And yet, never before in his career of playing understated background characters has he ever been able to let rip in a role like this. As Mazzy, he’s a live-wire, a braggart, a windbag, a hero, a coward, and, ultimately, a would-be lifeline amid a crisis that defies belief. This guy deserves to be in everything from now on.

Equally solid—though less showy—is Houle, who injects some welcome humanity into story, and makes a perfect, sensible foil for Mazzy’s flamboyance. She brings out the better part of Mazzy’s nature, and the movie also works as a human story as these two clash, combust, and then eventually find their balance.

The film was directed by Bruce McDonald, who hasn’t seemed to parlay his talents into much more than some sitcom-directing gigs, and that’s too bad. With this film, McDonald shows that he has a perfect idea of how to produce spectacular results on a limited budget, wisely keeping his canvas limited in order to keep his reach from exceeding his grasp. He also knows how to build terror out of seemingly innocuous interactions, that are just the slightest bit off…

McDonald even uses the end credits to continue the story, keeping the narrative running until the film’s final, surreal coda. I don’t know exactly what to make of the final scene. It’s a jarring contrast to the rest of the film’s restraint. It almost seems like an outtake, but McDonald kept it in there for some reason. It’s a nifty riff on the movie’s themes and a victory lap—a kind of cinematic twirling of the six-gun back into the holster. It’s the moment when I said aloud, “I fucking love this movie!”

So, it’s not all Mega-crocosauri and CGI aliens out there. Pontypool is available on Netflix Instant and iTunes. Check it out.

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