...so says the old schoolyard rhyme. But, as we all know, words do have power – both good and bad. For every word that makes you feel glad, another can cut you like a knife. Words can do a lot of things, but what they do best is carry things. Things like ideas and thoughts. As we know, though – these are just abstracts with no real power. But, what if words had actual power – and I’m not just talking the power to change your emotions; the power to actually carry something - a virus, perhaps. And that is the idea behinds today’s film; the 2009 Canadian horror film, Pontypool.
The always underrated Stephen McHattie (who is not a clone of the equally awesome Lance Henrikson) plays Grant Mazzy, a talk radio DJ. During his shift, he receives reports of a riot going on, under mysterious circumstances, with the target seemingly a local doctor, Dr Mendez. As more reports come in, it moves from looking like a riot to full scale attacks. Soon enough, things get even worse, with full scale deaths happening, sending the broadcasters into a serious panic. Trapped in the broadcast station (which is little more than a basement bunker) with his technical team and Dr Mendez, they soon find themselves under attack from within and without by the situation. They try to hold out from it taking over through a number of different ways, until the armed forces can get there and provide assistance.
As they find out, the cause of the riots and attacks are caused by a virus is spread via understanding the meaning of certain words. And that, to me, is a pretty scary situation, because word meanings are inherent, you understand the meaning implicitly and instantly. And to at least have a fighting chance against whatever this is, one has to think to change those word meanings (sort of a forced semantic pragmatism). Sure, we live in an age where new words are being introduced all the time, but to actually change their meanings, and those of well established words, is a very hard (if not nigh impossible) ask, at least for those who don’t have any real power. Sure, things like the media do have the ability to force meaning changes, but they usually do not stick. And to do something like that, pretty much on the fly, while under attack from what can only be described as Aphasic/Dysphasic Zombies, could only be a fool’s errand.
And, given the nature of Mazzy, a DJ – someone who by their very nature is not only expected to be verbose, but to get their words out to as many people as possible, to possibly be the major spreader of a virus like that...you need to have someone who can play a role like that and not turn it into a giant freak-out fest. Thankfully, Stephen McHattie plays him with first a detached annoyance and then an overstated restraint (even his explosions are restrained), especially after the breakouts start happening. But it’s not a one man show, with both Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly giving as good performances as the rest of the broadcast team, Reilly especially. But, seriously, as good as they are, this film proves that Stephen McHattie should have had a much bigger career than he has had – as the man has the ability to convey a million emotions with one small movement.
The film has been described as “Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds broadcast meets...Night Of The Living Dead, with some Chomsky thrown in for good measure”, and I couldn’t think of a more apt description of the film. One scene in particular could have stepped right out of the War Of The Worlds broadcast, and will have you on the edge of your seat for its entire duration.