Thursday, September 17, 2015

HELLIONS: Retro Review of Bruce McDonald's PONTYPOOL

Notice the cowboy hat!
This year, Bruce McDonald's Hellions is screening as part of Vanguard, so we thought we'd take a look back at his last Vanguard entry, Pontypool.

Let's face it: with few exceptions, everyone is sick of zombies. That's not to say that zombie movies and TV shows are dead in the water (with zombie sharks), but it does mean that artists are going to have to do better than the standard ripoffs of "I'm coming to get you, Barbara."

Enter Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald. Based on Tony Burgess's book, Pontypool Changes Everything, the McDonald-directed film Pontypool - which screened at the Festival in 2008 - is a breath of fresh air in a cemetery full of empty, stinking graves.

Pontypool is special because it's set in one location, the basement of a church that houses radio station CSLY. In that regard, it's more of a siege movie (think Assault on Precinct 13 or this year's Midnight Madness fave Green Room), than a straightforward zombie flick. Watching it reminded me of listening to radio plays as a kid (in library class, mind you; I'm not THAT old!), specifically "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Bluebeard." This makes Pontypool a bit metacritical and self-referential, but it also makes it scary as hell.

No one really knows what is going on in Pontypool, and hearing the panicked voices of those trapped in precarious situations outside of CSLY - they increase in hysteria as the day continues - creates a heightened state of fear. Of course, Pontypool is also set on Valentine's Day, which means it's during the thick of Ontario winter. There's something to be said about the creepy factor of cold weather. Movies have been using this setting for years to great effect: Black Christmas, The Thing, 30 Days Of Night. We only see snippets of the snow in Pontypool, but we sense it constantly throughout the movie and that makes it more claustrophobic.

Pontypool opens with DJ Grant Mazzy, who serves as the crux of the action in the film. He's the one who discusses the developing situation on the air, he's the one who inspires admiration and frustration, and he's also the one who provides what he thinks is a solution to the crisis. Portrayed by Stephen McHattie, who McDonald has called his most favorite actor, it's the role of a lifetime. McHattie's voice is perfectly suited to being a radio DJ, but it's his weathered face and take-no-shit performance as Mazzy that make Pontypool the rare film that transforms a character actor into a genuine leading man.

There's no twist in Pontypool, although it does present a remarkable, brilliant variation on the tropes of virus and infection, one that is far more relevant to modern society than the idea of mindless consumers munching on human flesh. It's one of the most unique takes on the zombie genre and thus, required viewing for all horror aficionados.

HELLIONS Screening Times:
Fri. Sept 18 4:00PM, SCOTIABANK 4

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