There are theories of mind that assert that human consciousness is but an incidental by-product of the brain's communication machinery; that the self is merely the result of a chance colonisation of our evolved language generation/reception hardware by a kind of parasitic viral software, which grew into a 'memeplex', if you like, of mutually dependent, culturally replicating units, without which there would be no structure at all to human thought — no understanding, and therefore no perception of a "self" as a conscious subject of experience ...
... or something like that!
Why am I boring you with my barely comprehended theories of language, consciousness and semiotics? Well, as unlikely as it may sound, this seems to be the subject of Canadian director Bruce McDonald's latest movie: the low budget sleeper horror hit that garnered a great deal of praise last year for doing something a little different within the zombie genre, principally by setting itself a stringent set of boundaries and insisting on working inside them throughout. It's a method Hitchcock was much given to: famously setting a film entirely within the restricted confines of a lifeboat in his 1944 film of the same name, and in a single room, with the events of the film recorded in a single take (or nearly a single take) shot in real time, in his first colour feature, "Rope". "Pontypool", which has been adapted by the author Tony Burgess from his own novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, similarly deliberately pins itself down with limited options — the entire film (apart from a short opening sequence and a shot halfway through in which some of the principle characters briefly look out of the main doorway) taking place in a single location, and for most of the time a single room. In this case it's the studio of a local radio station in Pontypool Ontario, Canada — which, perhaps for deeper allegorical reasons, broadcasts from the unlikely location of a church basement.
Here we are introduced to a small cast of characters, headed by one-time shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) who's finding it difficult to adjust to the parochial concerns of an average small town radio audience — missing cats, school closures and the bad weather — as he checks in for his morning breakfast phone-in show; much to the chagrin of his producer Sidney (Lisa Houle). It's not long, though, before strange reports of mysterious riots start coming in. The station's pretend 'eye in the sky' (really Sidney's brother-in-law observing from his car on a hillside overlooking the town!) radios in with disturbed and garbled anecdotes about teeming "herds" of people swarming around the surgery of a local doctor Mendez, and even the BBC World Service contacts the station looking for Mazzy to comment on claims that the whole of Ontario is under military curfew. Mazzy, Sidney and their young assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) are increasingly confused and perplexed as more and more listeners phone in with bizarre anecdotes of frenzied human cannibalism; weird babbling voices start to appear over the airwaves, as well as a strange raspy voice imitating the cries of a baby. It all gets very weird indeed.
The problem for Mazzy and his two co-workers is how seriously can they take any of this? Is it really happening at all? None of it appears to make any sense anyway. When the eccentric doctor Mendez himself steals into the station through the back window of a disused room in the church, and informs the trio that language itself appears to have borne a virus which is altering the consciousness and the understanding of all those infected, they are understandably even more reluctant to believe such a wild story ... that is until Laurel-Ann begins to start behaving very strangely indeed ...
Although the setting might be restricted and the cast numbers kept to a bare minimum, the scale of the conceptual ideas behind this film couldn't be more ambitious, and it's this almost foolhardy philosophical underpinning that leads ultimately to the film's undoing in its final moments, as the narrative is forced into some rather desperate contortions in order to try and reconcile its core ideas with the genre conventions within which it is operating. The film clearly invokes the memory of Orson Welles' infamous Mercury Theatre production of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", a broadcast often reported on as having caused social hysteria when some listeners, mistaking its faux news broadcast format for the real thing, believed that aliens really were invading the planet! The film's style is a fair pastiche of John Carpenter's siege film "Assault on Precinct 13" (the radio station setting also bringing to mind Carpenter's "The Fog") while the rage-like infection is of course a clear reference to "28 Days Later" and the remake of "Dawn of the Dead", so the zombie tag is more than understandable; it's difficult to know how else you could sell this film; an allegory about semiotics probably wouldn't have done it! There are several very effective sequences that play on the kind of imagery we are used to seeing in the above mentioned films, and the tension is nicely maintained for a great deal of the running time, especially when the conversationalists (as the infected are described in the end credits) force the surviving broadcast team into the radio station sound booth.
But this film is clearly working with these Horror genre conventions in order to play out a much more elaborate set of allegorical ideas. It's a tribute to the cast, particularly McHattie and Houle, that any of this is even workable as a film idea at all; but the final act simply fails to keep up the juggling act, and lets ripe with a thoroughly head-scratching descent into narrative incoherence, which, although it could undoubtedly be justified as an illustration of the kind of Derridian deconstruction methods (I can't believe I'm actually typing this sentence!) the characters themselves attempt to deploy, is unlikely to leave most general audiences feeling at all satisfied unless they've remembered to take a degree in philosophy before entering the cinema. And what to make of the post-credit sequence, which appears to be from a completely different film altogether?
"Pontypool" is a low budget picture, but Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment's Blu-ray does a very respectable job of highlighting the pleasing cinematography of the film, although it will hardly stand as a demonstration disc for the format. The film's colours are muted and the lighting level low for most of the movie, but there is an overall level of detail here that belies the smallness of the film's scale. The audio track is a similarly pleasing DTS HD 5.1 that greatly adds to the atmosphere — vital since we are merely hearing about events rather than seeing them most of the time.
Extras turn out to be quite an interesting though mixed bag. First up, with have the original 56 minute radio play which serves as the basis for the eventual film version. It turns out that quite a lot of the audio play is very similar to the finished film, although there are necessarily more and more differences as the piece proceeds. Then we have a commentary by director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess. This is a strange one. It has to be the most rambling incoherent commentary track I've ever heard in my life! You'll actually feel more confused after listening to it than you were beforehand. Strangely, Burgess and McDonald spend a good deal of time describing the plot treatment for the proposed sequel, "Pontypool Changes" and even go on to talk about the third film in the proposed trilogy in some detail! It seems "Pontypool" was always planned as the first part of a trilogy, with the events of the second one taking place simultaneously with those of the first, but don't expect to find out too much about the filming of this instalment on this commentary track!
A stills gallery and theatrical and teaser trailers round off the extras that relate to the film directly, but you also get two Canadian shorts that play for 12 minutes and 8 minutes respectively. These are actually pretty good, coming over a bit like David Lynch's Eraserhead, being grainy, flickering black & white art-house shorts, full of odd dreamlike imagery that plays like a pastiche of the early cinema of F.W. Murnau, particularly "Nosferatu". The second short is very clearly influenced by Jean Cocteau's photographic trickery in "Blood of a Poet".
"Pontypool" is an interesting experiment that appears not to have fully worked out, although the journey is certainly fascinating and I would recommend anyone gave it a go. Whether the upcoming instalments will vindicate the loose ends and unanswered questions that predominate in this first film of the trilogy remains to be seen, but you can't fault McDonald and Burgess for their ambition and the follow up instalments will definitely be worth looking gout for to see how it all pans out.