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Saturday, October 31, 2009

21 Pontypool

Dir. Bruce McDonald
Fright level: 4/10
Scare Type: Atmosphere, apocalyptic

Every few years, after sifting through crates of over-hyped titles, I come across a quite unassuming film, that blows me away: it happened with The Last Broadcast, The Interview, Session 9, and now Pontypool. In fact, if I were to advise someone setting out to make a low-budget horror film on what films to see, those titles I just listed, would be an excellent place to start.

Pontypool was adapted by Tony Burgess from his acclaimed novel Pontypool Changes Everything, into this film and a radio play simultaneously, and directed by Canadian Television director Bruce MacDonald (who did a few of my favorite Degrassi Episodes...seriously) It concerns a washed up Imus style cowboy hat clad figure Grant Mazzy, played incredibly by television journeyman Stephen McHattie who also has an amazing radio voice, relegated to hosting an early morning regional radio broadcast in Pontypool, Ontario, Canada, his producer Sydney Briar who is also something of his translator into small-town life, and recently returned Afghan war hero Laurel Ann as the audio engineer.

Suddenly they begin to hear police chatter and receive a strange call from their traffic guy about a riot, but can't verify anything. For the rest of the film we remain inside the studio, with these characters, as they hear the world around them going crazy.

This is the smartest horror film I've seen in a long time. It references William S. Burroughs and some of his contemporary ideas on radio, as well as linguistic theory, radio history, political double-speak, misinformation, mass-media theory, avant-garde radio theory (humans as transmitters), glossolalia and breakdown, and non-sense as a defense mechanism...but don't be fooled t's a genuinely funny film and endearing look at small town dynamics and the role played by radio in that setting. This film falls into a very narrow but quite contemporary sub-genre of semiotic horror, inahbited by Koji Suzuki's Ring novels and Mark Z. Danielewski's incredible House of Leaves (perhaps the best novel of the decade). In this sub-genre, the referent is either lost, leads to an endless and maddening search, or is so incomprehensible that it causes genuine madness or death. Interestingly enough these works are all-multi-media. Suzuki covers video, film, and novels, and Danielewski covers everything from music, architecture, academic style, and photography.

In this film, a virus has broken out, but not biologically. Like Suzuki's novel's a virus has evolved somehow into attaching itself to another carrier. Here, that carrier is the English language. And the setting, Canada with its very political relationship between French and English adds a whole other level of meaning.

This is one of those films that will be written about quite disproportionally to its reception for a long time to come. Meaning you'll hear a lot about it. So my advice is to see it now!

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