Pontypool (2008) Movie Review – 31 Days of Halloween 2023
When disc jockey Grant Mazzy reports to his basement radio station in the Canadian town of Pontypool, he thinks it's just another day at work. But when he hears reports of a virus that turns people into zombies, Mazzy barricades himself in the radio booth and tries to figure out a way to warn his listeners about the virus and its unlikely mode of transmission.
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It’s October the 2nd and that means it is day 2 of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween 2023 feature. For those of you who don’t know, we are counting down to Halloween by reviewing a horror movie every day. Each of these movies are among some of my favourite horrors of all time so. We are following up yesterday’s movie, Resolution, with another Lo-Fi horror movie – Pontypool from 2008.
I always start these articles by reminding you that if you are participating in an October horror movie a day marathon. Then you can check out our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween 2022 list for inspiration or even our A Tubi 31 Days of Halloween for a whole selection of movies available to watch completely free. You can also just follow along with the reviews we will be releasing every day. These reviews will be sticking to a shorter format as most of these movies are old and there isn’t a great deal I can say about them that hasn’t already been said.
Canadian Indie Horror
Based on the novel by Tony Burgess. Pontypool follows the story of “shock jock” radio host Grant Massy heading into work at his new radio station. On his way, he encounters a woman babbling randomly and repeating a single word. Little does he realise this will not be the strangest thing that happens to him today. While on the air, the station’s eye in the sky helicopter news reporter spots a riot taking place outside of a doctor’s office. Reports come in of crazed people speaking nonsensically and attacking others. There is carnage and mayhem throughout the town and the radio station’s crew are trapped inside with no idea what is happening all around them.
Pontypool starts off incredibly slowly. We are introduced to our charismatic radio host Grant Massy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and his assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). We see Massy presenting the morning radio show, we see him argue with Sydney and we see him drink Glenfiddich criminally mixed in with his coffee. Nothing much of note happens but that is very deliberate. The slow build is extremely purposeful and is about to give way to a horrific story that is executed in a style almost reminiscent of Orson Welles’ radio broadcasts. The vast majority of the horror here takes place through voices talking to each other with limited visual depictions.
A Lot More Than a Zombie Movie
Let’s be real, the zombie movie sub-genre is beyond over saturated. We all got bored of creatures marauding around aimlessly a long time ago. 28 Days later added a new spin to it but everyone else copied it and it got boring again. Since then, there haven’t been many new innovations. We either have fast moving rage zombies or the bumbling idiot variety. If there is one subject in horror that is guaranteed to make me roll my eyes, it is zombie movies.
Pontypool is different. Pontypool puts a whole new spin on the zombie movie formula of old. Whereas zombies traditionally spread their disease via biting. The humans in Pontypool spread it in a whole different way entirely. A way that might be rather unexpected. I don’t want to go into it due to spoilers. But this is a horror that takes the tried and tested zombie horror trope and goes out of its way to subvert expectation. And that is what makes it so captivating and great. It is also what makes it so completely unsettling.
Legitimately Unsettling in Parts
Pontypool relies entirely on discomforting the viewer to unsettle. There is no overt violence or people being ripped apart in front of your eyes. There are no special effects or gallons of gore. This is a horror movie that goes about things in a very different way. Many of the most frightening scenes in Pontypool are the ones being described to one character by another. There is something innately terrifying about hearing a person relate the horrifying things they are witnessing in front of their very eyes. It is affecting in a whole different kind of way than what we can physically see in front of us.
This is what makes Pontypool really stand out. There really isn’t much like it and you have to go back to the days of radio horror shows to find something similar. It is almost like reading the words in a novel and creating an image in your mind to go along with the story. And when your imagination is allowed to run wild, it tends to do a better job of creating some truly horrifying images than any special effects artist can.
It’s hard not to think of the original Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds when watching Pontypool. Whereas much of this is down to budget constraints. I imagine that director Bruce McDonald was, at least a little, inspired by those radio broadcasts of old. It’s unique and fantastic. There really is very little like Pontypool nowadays.
A Social Commentary
There are a number of scenes that do resort to more traditional horror techniques. One being particularly noteworthy for just how much more effective and shocking it manages to be for its simplicity. The interesting thing, however, is that while this scene is taking place. Massy describes much of what is taking place to his audience. Relating the horror of what he is seeing in somewhat muted detail to avoid causing upset. This, in turn, is him describing it to the viewer, as well. Further reinforcing that extremely interesting narrative style and allowing the viewer to expand on the events taking place beyond what they see on screen. It’s fascinating stuff and extremely immersive.
Again, I will avoid going into details to avoid spoilers. But the central theme of Pontypool and the cause of the unrest acts as something of a social commentary. It points the fingers at people’s careless repeating of dangerous rhetoric while also highlighting how easy it is for damaging thoughts and ideoligies to spread. Causing harm to people far beyond the scope of your own existence. It feels all the more apt and relevant now than it did back on its release in 2008. There are moments when this message can feel a little on the nose but it is no less important.
A Few Negatives
It has to be pointed out that Pontypool is not going to be for everyone. This is Lo-Fi horror and extremely slow for much of its length. Even when it gets going it isn’t particularly action filled and isn’t going to satisfy anyone looking for traditional zombie horror thrills and spills. The movie does lose some of its impact as it goes on. Towards the final 30 minutes the concept has reached its peak and never really manages to bounce back. There is only so far you can go given the theme and Pontypool milks most of the scares pretty early on.
It’s hard not to point out the final 10 minutes of the film, as well. This is one of those movies that sort of writes itself into a corner. I am not sure how it could have ended satisfactorily but I really am not a fan of how things wrap up. It feels unnecessary and forced. As if the writer needed a conclusion but couldn’t quite think of how to make one fit. In its efforts to continue subverting expectation, Pontypool produces an ending that feels contrived and a bit silly.
Some of the movie’s comedy may not land for certain viewers. It is very dry but makes for some decent laughs. I also noted a few messy cuts here and there that needed some tidying up. There are a couple of moments where the characters can only be described as acting extremely bizarrely, as well. Almost in a Twin Peaks style, uncanny, manner. It’s hard to describe but notable in certain scenes, particularly with Mazzy. The script is a bit lacking in parts too with some of the dialogue feeling rather unnatural. That’s without mentioning some of the more illogical plot points that don’t make a tremendous amount of sense.
Decent Acting and Direction
Naturally the star of the show is Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy. McHattie has a perfect radio voice and has absolutely nailed the cadence and flow of this type of presenter. He is solid almost throughout and provides a few laughs on a number of occasions. I do think he chews the scenery here and there. He has a tendency to overact a little bit. A scene where he is about head outside while his co-workers try to stop him being a perfect example. He is definitely the highlight of the movie, though.
Lisa Houle provides a perfect foil for Mazzy as his producer Sydney. She has some effective scenes towards the end of the movie and brings a nice sense of realism to her character. Georgina Reilly is brilliant as Laurel-Ann. She does a fantastic job during the middle of the movie and provides a performance that is legitimately affecting. Special shout out to Rick Roberts as helicopter reporter Ken Loney, as well. He has a number of voice only scenes that are brilliant and add tons to the story. All in all, it’s a great cast that does a brilliant job.
Direction is generally fine. There are some decent shots and Bruce McDonald’s use of the sound proof booth to create both scares and laughs is fantastic. There are a few dodgy transitions here and there but that seems to be editing problems more than anything. McDonald manages to balance the drama, horror and the comedy perfectly as well which definitely deserves mention.
Final Thoughts and Score
Much like yesterday’s movie Resolution. Pontypool isn’t going to be for everyone. We are starting off October slowly and Pontypool is just that, extremely slow. It isn’t trying to scare you in traditional ways and skirts the line somewhere between horror, thriller, and radio drama but for some reason it works. It is a captivating movie with some legitimately funny humour, a great cast, a bold new spin on tired tropes and an important message. If you are looking for action, look elsewhere. If you are looking for something that will get in your head and try to unsettle you. Give Pontypool a try. It is on Amazon Prime video, I believe.
Trailer: Pontypool (2008)
|Release Date:||6th March 2009|
|Movie Length:||96 Min|
|Starring:||Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts|
|Directed By:||Bruce McDonald|
|Written By:||Tony Burgess|
|Produced By:||Jeffrey Coghlan, Ambrose Roche|
|Parental Guidance:||Violence, Language, Racially Insensitive Content, Self Harm|