On Sunday, I saw an atypical vampire movie. The weekend prior, I saw an atypical zombie movie.* Next up: atypical werewolf movie! I’ve no idea which one, though, so please comment with your suggestions, and in the meantime, let me tell you about Pontypool.
Were you to say “Hmm, you don’t strike me as a zombie movie watcher,” you would be quite correct. But Pontypool is a zombie movie the way Signs is an alien movie, which is to say that the plague-monsters themselves don’t get a lot of screen time. In an hour and a half of film, there are perhaps twelve minutes of shuffling revenants, and fewer of gore. There is neither a shotgun nor a cricket bat to be seen, and only a few splashes of red against a subdued background of bluish grays.
That said, there’s a lot to hear. The film is set in a radio broadcast studio built in the basement of an abandoned church, and most of the suspense and horror comes from what information can be gleaned from people calling in to the station, sometimes mid-attack, reporting a mob of people converging on the doctor’s office or a car being buried under a “herd” of people. Since none of it is shown, the mind is free to imagine just how awful those attacks might be. The responses and actions of announcer Grant Mazzy, his manager Sydney Briar, and assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond underscore the terror of ignorance and the slowly-dawning horror of understanding.
That creeping comprehension makes the movie. From the first two minutes, shown below, each little word is significant. The missing cat and its name; the people speaking French; the BBC broadcaster; the Valentine’s Day cards: all of it matters, and it takes watching and re-watching to understand why.
The pacing, the music (curse you, creepy violins!), the language, and silence all put the viewer in thrall. I had to talk to bring myself out of it a bit, had to eat my popcorn with determination, had to hug the friend sitting next to me whilst watching it. I’m no nail-biter, but it’s full of nail-biting tension anyway. There are those moments when one is left hollering at the screen, Don’t call him! No, hang up your phone! Such is the way of suspenseful movies: they mess with you as they draw you further in.
More thoughts and some spoilers under the cut.
*Much like the robots in World’s End prefer not to be called robots, the director of Pontypool prefers that the infected victims not be called zombies but “conversationalists.” The reason for this is that the infected victims don’t die and then become undead, chasing after whatever brains they can find; rather, normal humans become infected by a virus which destroys their ability to communicate, distressing them to the point of fixing on one particular victim. If a host cannot reach his victim, he will kill himself trying.
The thing is, that virus isn’t a biological agent transmitted through a bite or other physical contact. Instead it spreads through infected words. A word heard is a word transmitted, a message received. And words or messages received and understood are words that can change the hearers. The metaphorical implications are obvious, but the effect within the movie is quite literal, and quite terrifying: confined as they are, the radio station staff need to listen to those outside to learn what they can, but they have no way of knowing which words might be infected, which might spread the illness to them. On the bright side, it’s safe enough to talk in an uninfected language, and where that fails, it’s somewhat possible to fight against the triggering word by repeating it to the point of semantic satiation.
The trigger word seems to vary from person to person. One character says “missing” and mixes it with “Mister Mazzy” and then she’s more or less left gibbering. Another says “symbol” when he means “symptom” and then “sample” and “simple” get mixed in there. The resulting chatter brought the Cosmic Trilogy to mind – specifically, the Banquet at Belbury in That Hideous Strength where the members of the NICE are returned to the state of Babel. It’s dreadful, and terribly effective.
That effectiveness is the reason I immediately wanted to share it. Somehow it seems that Pontypool succeeds where The Ring fails: it really does demand to be shared, clamors for some word-of-mouth buzz. Watch. Listen. Understand.