Most Canadian horror films are shlocky exploitation films. Shot quickly on the cheap, they're often nothing more than direct-to-DVD teen slasher films, immediately disposed of after one viewing.
Pontypool, theoretically, could have been another crappy Canadian horror film. Shot for half a million dollars over two weeks in Ontario, it could have been nothing more than another My Bloody Valentine. Instead it is a tense, taut horror film that actually manages to do something shocking in horror cinema: be creepy as hell.
The film centres around the titular town of Pontypool that is ravaged by a virus that infects the English language itself. Hopping from person to person by speaking, anyone who catches it becomes an obsessive conversationalist-- a.k.a. pseudo-zombies constantly trying to communicate with people, finding themselves unable to say more than one or two words. Trapped in their own heads and unable to tell anyone how they're feeling, these conversationalists inevitably go mad from their inability to talk to anyone.
The film's opening is just especially jarring. Director Bruce McDonald opens not with some grand, sweeping scene or bloody murder but a tremendously off-putting narration over an oscilloscope. The narration, which plays an important part in the story later on, makes no sense out of context but keeps the audience off-kilter.
The film is a hallmark in creeping terror. Outside of a few bloody scenes, most of the film is very tame in its content. The horror does not come from any graphic content, but from a stream of scenes that are incredibly off-putting. A woman tries desperately to communicate, only to repeat one word over and over again, her face increasingly shocked and dismayed as she stutters and stammers, only to repeat herself. We start empathizing with her character, only to see her lose herself to her madness and attack the survivors, Grant (Stephen MacHattie) and Sydney (Lisa Houle) in a violent and bloody way.
One of the film's greatest successes is its ability to actually play with the conventions of speech in film. In most horror films, characters scream, cry and yell at one another, but not in Pontypool-- that's the easiest way to transmit the virus. The survivors instead try numerous different ways to communicate with one another without speaking, some of which would seem terrifyingly boring. McDonald somehow manages to make writing on a whiteboard incredibly tense.
Another surprising element of the film is that once it enters into its main set piece, the radio station where MacHattie's character works, it doesn't leave. McDonald manages to keep the film very interesting visually, even when it's in the booth for the radio show. Cross-cutting wide shots with extreme close ups of MacHattie's craggy face as the horrified reports come in from all around town, the small radio booth becomes infinitely larger.
The film, though, falters in its third act. The two survivors seem to find a "cure" for the virus that seems more comical than it does serious. The constant repetition of the cure ends up becoming a punch line instead of a moment of salvation. While this doesn't ruin the previous 60 minutes, it does make the movie a little bit frustrating and unfulfilling. The creepy vibe that was built up so brilliantly ends up being washed away in a tide of eye-rolling dialogue.