Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Pontypool

(Note: this review is as spoiler-free as I could make it. Which is to say, it hints at spoilers.)

Many indie horror films end up being more horror and less indie; they aspire, not to artistic profundity or hipster cred, but to scares, gore, and frequently, reliable genre tropes. Indie zombie movie Pontypool is largely the inverse of that.

I have mixed feelings about indie movies; even those I've liked, I've often found slightly irritating. And initially, I wasn't even going to do a full review for Pontypool because its ending bugged me so much. Upon further reflection, however, much of the first hour-plus was engaging and effective enough that I changed my mind. Its indie-ness is less overwhelming than it could have been, resulting in a watchable and quite different movie, which is a rare enough combination to merit attention by itself. It helps that, despite its miniscule budget, Pontypool is occasionally scary, and in a distinctive way.

Spend enough time in a nursing home or a psych ward, and there's a good chance you'll encounter some individuals exhibiting the same behavioral oddity that distinguishes Pontypool's zombies from others. Thus, despite its concept being even less plausible than that of more typical zombie narratives, its brand of scare works—and is likely to feel even more unsettling than most zombie movies to those of us who've seen people do this.

I watched Pontypool for only two reasons: the fact that it's horror month here at Fraught Experiments and the fact that its lead is Stephen McHattie (Elaine's psychiatrist from Seinfeld and Senator Vreenak from DS9's best episode, "In the Pale Moonlight"). I almost suspect the film's creators may have been DS9 fans, because not only are the Vreenak joke opportunities suspiciously numerous, but even the nature of the infection reminds me of another, lesser, DS9 episode (which I won't name, but which DS9 fans who see Pontypool will immediately identify).

The film's greatest strength is its actors, especially McHattie, who's wonderfully expressive and has the perfect voice for this role. McHattie creates a lovable rogue character in Grant Mazzy, a down-on-his-luck radio shock jock whose integration into a small-town station is proving difficult. He butts heads pretty much constantly with his producer (McHattie's real-life wife, Lisa Houle, who in profile looks eerily like Tom Hiddleston). A bizarre incident on a remote highway foreshadows the series of even more bizarre incidents that follow, largely conveyed to Mazzy and his crew via telephone.

Pontypool's budget is so low that it almost never leaves the radio station. This proves to be an effective vehicle for Day of the Dead-style claustrophobic horror. Likewise, the phone calls are a convenient way to deliver plot information while triggering the audience's imagination about what Mazzy is hearing. Apart from one or two slow stretches, this obvious cost-saving approach manages to still be engaging thanks to the cast, some skillful cinematography, and a naturalistic script. The inherent creepiness of radio is well-exploited in a few key scenes.

So it wasn't the one-location setting that bothered me (though I could certainly imagine it bothering those viewers who would, for example, be unsatisfied at seeing really only one zombie). Even the premise—which cannot help but provoke whispers of doubt—was presented just well enough that I could mostly suspend my disbelief.

And to be completely fair, Pontypool's indie-ness never reaches the same oppressive depths as certain indie films we can probably all name. But where Pontypool gets too indie is its ending—it's all messagey and attempted-profundity—and even more so in its post-credits scene, which is such a non sequitur that I have to assume it was some kind of inside joke. That costs Pontypool half a star in my book. That said, if genre deconstruction appeals to you enough that you've just gotta see every moderately-effective example thereof, you might like it more than I did.

And Vreenak nerds? You absolutely want to see it.

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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