It takes quite a bit for a film to really drive my intellect and have me so engrossed philosophically that I tune out everything and everyone around me, but that’s exactly what PONTYPOOL does. An extremely fascinating story that is not only intriguing, immersive and intelligent, but psychologically conceptualized exhilaration with a wicked wryness and socio-political commentary, PONTYPOOL, and particularly the performance of Stephen McHattie, is controlled frenetic gold.
With a Don Imus-like appearance and rapid-fire opinionated persona, one time big city radio shock jock, Grant Mazzy has now been relegated to a small town talk radio news station, “The Beacon”, CLSY – 660 on your radio dial, out in the Canadian back forty. (Seems Mazzy was a bit too much shock even for a top 40 market.) Broadcasting from a church basement in the quaint little town of Pontypool, CLSY gives new meaning to the term “small town station.” Consisting of Mazzy, producer Sydney Briar and audio tech/go-to-gal Laurel Ann Drummond as the sole “staffers”in the station and one field reporter, Ken Loonie, up in his big bird eye-in-the-sky “Sunshine Copter” (which is actually just a Dodge charger sitting on a hill looking down over the town with helicopter noise tapes playing in the background), Mazzy looks to a few bottles of top shelf scotch to get him through his broadcast and the “boredom” of small town news on his first day at CLSY – Valentine’s Day.
But Mazzy’s first day on the job starts out as anything but normal. While stopped for a traffic signal on his drive to work during a “white out” blizzard, a well dressed businesswoman jumps out at him, pounding on his car window. With a vacant lost look on her face, she is mumbling incoherently. While Mazzy tries to understand her through the window and see if she needs assistance, she suddenly turns and vanishes as quickly as she appeared. Arriving at work, the incident gives Mazzy pause for a radio call in topic for the morning, “when do you call 911?”.
With a rhythmic, lyrical staccato and word play, Mazzy hits the airwaves with his patented energetic furor, much to the chagrin of Sydney who only wants a simple, clean broadcast with weather reports and school closures. But clean and simple soon goes out the window when Laurel starts picking up over the police band strange events and happenings around town, yet nothing is coming over the news wires. Unverifiable but for some eye witnesses who call in, a hostage situation occurs which Mazzy dismisses as street fights among local drunks and rowdies. But the situation quickly escalates into reports of buildings imploding with mobs of humanity chanting unintelligible mantras. Sequestered safe in the church below the streets, Mazzy relies on Ken’s reports which are getting increasingly more panicked and viscerally horrific as time passes until, with the same abruptness of the woman pounding on his car window some 5 hours earlier, the airwaves are interrupted by an announcement in French that, on translation over the air by Mazzy (the last sentence of which is “do not translate this”), sets the wheels in motion for the ultimate in bone chilling psychological terror, all of which we come to understand with the appearance of one, Dr. Mendez.
A 40 year veteran of stage, screen and tv, Stephen McHattie has long been a favorite of mine. From his recurring roles as Gabriel on “Beauty and the Beast” to that as Captain Healy in the Stone Cold-Jesse Stone tv movies to Romulan Senator Vreenak on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Walker: Texas Ranger”, McHattie is chameleonic in his personas, capable of blending into the background, playing a pivotal sidekick or, as here, carrying an entire film with an infectious driving, pulsating non-stop energy. As Grant Mazzy, he is the heart and soul of this film. His emotions are real and propel the film forward. On the surface, McHattie gives Mazzy a frenetic and cocky persona but providing subtextural layers of warmth and humanity that resonate deeper as the film progresses. He is amazing to watch. McHattie’s Mazzy is what draws you ever deeper into this story, into the drama unfolding, but which for a bulk of the film, we as the audience never get to see, only hear. He brings us into the solitude of the broadcasting booth with him which serves to escalate one’s own fear factor tenfold.
A former foley artist, Lisa Houle assumes the role of producer Sydney Briar giving her a false confidence and bravura which is a perfect balance to McHattie’s Mazzy. Solid in her delivery and in her expressiveness of fear, Houle also adds a bit of playfulness to Sydney, particularly in one scene with Mazzy where she gets more than a bit tipsy. Making her feature film debut after years in musical theater, Georgina Reilly, steps in as former combat GI turned audio tech, Laurel Ann Drummond. Cast just 3 days before shooting, Reilly is a welcome addition to our core cast of three. Unphased and unflappable as chaos begins to erupt, Reilly drives Drummond with military calculation but then brings a level of teen idol adoration to Laurel Ann in her relationship with Mazzy that plays well into the story as the crisis worsens. A real star is Rick Roberts who provides the voice of Sunshine Copter reporter, Ken Loney. As our eyes on the scene, he evokes terror, panic and fear in your heart with each utterance, each breath. And it is those words and sounds that McHattie then turns into visual fear, as if our own minds aren’t already visualizing the worst. A truly collaborative effort between Roberts and McHattie.
Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel “Pontypool Changes Everything”, PONTYPOOL is one of the most radical adaptations I have ever seen but one that translates beautifully to the big screen. Known for his themes of cannibalism and hallucinogenic experiences, with PONTYPOOL, through the use of an intelligent thought-provoking concept and non-linear writing style, Burgess poses a well crafted socio-political commentary with concentrations on ethical considerations, particularly as to the responsibility of media, all of which is propelled by our own internal fears and curiosity; that worst case scenario “what if” factor.” A true wordsmith, with underlying meanings in every word, every action, every reaction, there is more here than meets the eye as Burgess has the ability to turn one word into an entire dialogue – or monologue. Verbally and character driven, the story is set within the confines of a small church basement, thus calling on claustrophobia for an added visual fear factor.
With a relatively low budget, director Bruce McDonald kills the gore factor and goes for the psychological horror of the events unfolding in the story making PONTYPOOL even more frightening than if blood and guts were being strewn about every 10 seconds. (Don’t panic people! There is still blood and gore.) Centered in one location, McDonald reins us in, focusing our attention on the principals and the story at hand, leaving the unseen to our own imaginations. There is nothing superfluous to distract our attention. Shot in chronological order in the basement of the Victoria-Royce Presbyterian Church in Toronto’s West End, McDonald opted to shoot in HD using the new “Red” camera, allowing him a fluidity in movement as the story unveils and also providing for an increased intensity within the characters themselves. Notable is the lensing and lighting palette which is slightly denatured, thus giving even more impact to the perfectly paced blood and guts sequences. Unfortunately, about three-quarters of the way in, McDonald briefly loses his momentum with the lensing and the story, lending to a feeling of “struggling across the finish line” post climax. Despite this, however, the film endures thanks to the abstract psychology of the story, strong performances and stylized storytelling.
An original story. Strong performances, particularly from Stephen McHattie. A film that prays on innermost fears of society and individuals. Frightening. Terrifying. Thought provoking. PONTYPOOL. PONTYPOOL. PONTYPOOL. PONTYPOOL equals one helluva ride.
Grant Mazzy – Stephen McHattie
Sydney Briar – Lisa Houle
Laurel Ann Drummond – Georgina Reilly
Ken Loney – Rick Roberts.
Directed by Bruce McDonald. Written by Tony Burgess based on his novel, “Pontypool Changes Everything.”