Bruce McDonald’s debut feature was the indie road movie / comedy Roadkill which took a heroine through rural Ontario looking for a band and the tag line for that film was “Move or Die”. His latest indie thriller / horror film, Pontypool has the tag line of “Shut Up or Die”. Based on the novel, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, it’s cleverly reworks the framework of a group of people trapped by infected humans outside. Instead of zombies, the threat in Pontypool is posed by “Conversationalists”, who become infected through language.
With most of the film taking place within a radio station during the morning show, it slowly increases the creepiness and establishes the premise as we get to know the talk radio host Grant Mazzy (in a bravura performance by Stephen McHattie), the engineer Laurel (Georgina Reilly in a great feature debut), and radio producer Sydney Briar (in a complex performance by Lisa Houle). The only other character to appear on camera is a doctor (played by Hrant Alianak) who has a bit of an understanding of what is going on. Embracing the constraints of a lower budget and a single location, McDonald manages to squeeze out a story that twists and turns and kept me gripped all the way through end credits.
One of the things that I really loved about the film is that it is unapologetic in being set in Canada, and that context is actually critical to how the events unfold. The film, as with most of McDonald’s work, has a sly sense of humour that keeps things from getting too serious and there are nice references to earlier films too. Toning down the multipaned over-the-top approach of The Tracey Fragments with a desaturated, but crisp look there is a breathtaking and elegiac interlude within the film that moved it out of the B-movie neighbourhood where it could have happily stayed. As I left the film, it changed my perception of language and it felt strange to speak, which is quite an achievement.