Festival Daily

By Tammy Stone


One of the magical qualities of cinema is that individual films can be many different things to different people. Films certainly unite, but they also divide, inspiring such heated debate and endless interpretation that it’s often hard to

believe the same film lies at the source of it all.

Then there are the films that deliberately set out to jar, stump and break the mould. Veteran director Bruce McDonald’s oeuvre has done just that, almost from the beginning. In 1996, Hard Core Logo, one of the early mock docs, rapidly achieved cult status, while last year’s The Tracey Fragments used an innovative multiple screen technique to present a strikingly original series of perspectives about a teenaged girl, played by Ellen Page.


McDonald has always been aware that technical and narrative trickery alone are not enough, complementing his formal experimentation with a flair for fluid and engaging storytelling. Nowhere is this more evident than in his new film, Pontypool, which has numerous sources of inspiration and refuses to adhere to any one genre or category of film styles.


“Greg Sinclair, a producer at CBC Radio, commissioned me and Tony Burgess to make a radio drama,” says McDonald. “We thought of combining War of the Worlds done by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre in 1938 with some concepts from Tony’s novel Pontypool Changes Everything.”


Dabbling in the thriller and zombie film genres but adding doses of humour and philosophical conjecture, Pontypool depicts a bizarre day in the life of a tiny town as it is slowly, inexplicably invaded by some sort of human-altering virus. Mounting tension and looming disaster were not what radio personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) expected when he signed on to work in the middle of nowhere at a radio station running out of a church basement. His producer (Lisa Houle) has her hands full trying to get him to read his rather dull local news feeds without flourish or embellishment. As the story starts to unfold, the cameras – and viewer – remain with Mazzy, his producer and their production assistant (Georgina Reilly) in their claustrophobic space. Anticipation builds as Mazzy’s sonorous incantations become a gateway to the cornucopia of chaos in the world outside.


“We capitalized on Pontypool’s origins as a radio drama,” says McDonald. “Scary movies are often scariest in the moments where you don’t see the monster. Sound and imagination are very potent in scary films. We couldn’t afford to go outside and see the horrors, so we made the most of staying inside and hearing the horrors.”


“The limitations of setting the story entirely inside a radio station also set us free,” continues McDonald, and this comes across in spades. McHattie’s deep, resonating voice lulls, cajoles and all but hypnotizes as he becomes the viewers’ sole access to the unfolding action. Weird things are happening: police are involved in a shootout with ice fishers; the station’s helicopter reporter is sucked into the madness; and people can no longer speak coherently. The offices of a Dr. Mendes (Hrant Alianak) are also being invaded, and soon he’s at the station offering his theories on how and why the human race is imploding.


Pontypool is a definite one-of-a-kind movie,” says McDonald. “It borrows on the tensions of Polanski, the confines of Val Lewton’s films, the humour of Buñuel, the social satire of Jewison, the chitter-chat of Louis Malle and the romance of Woody Allen. It’s a movie that we believe in rather than one we’re trying to believe in.”


With its astute economy of form, heady conceptual subject matter and arsenal of playful, whimsical moments distinctly recognizable as McDonald’s – only he can incorporate into the same film a newly minted zombie girl repeatedly bashing her head into a glass pane and a nascent romance semi-unfolding with babble as the language of love – Pontypool has something in it for everyone, in the best sense possible.


Sept. 9, 4:30pm, Varsity 7      
Sept. 12, 5:00pm, Varsity 8