June 18, 2009

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Pontypool (NR)
A morning radio show host learns a new meaning to the term “dead air” in Pontypool, a delightfully low-budget Canadian horror movie.

Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a cowboy-hat-wearing, “truth-telling” radio show host in the tradition of your Don Imuses who has (also in the Imus tradition) been canned from jobs for his incendiary shtick. Now in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, he’s expected to add a bit of commentary to bits about the weather and the school closings and, his exasperated producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him, to keep a lid on his ravings about the government. But as he starts his broadcast one snowy morning, reports start coming in of things that clearly speak to his interest in conspiracy. Violent incidents are reported around town, a mob is spotted near a doctor’s office. Traffic reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) in the “Sunshine Chopper” — really a car sitting on high ground with some helicopter sound effects in the background — sees what he’s certain is the death of several people during a confused swarm of police officers and dazed-looking, chanting rioters. And while the words the rioters are chanting aren’t “need brains,” the rioters do seem to be looking for a little human flesh to gnaw on.

What is particularly neat about this eerie, funny take on the zombie movie is that most of it happens in the church basement that is this small-town radio station studio. Sydney, Mazzy and, on the board, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) are reacting to phone calls and other reports of the increasing madness (some of which we don’t hear) but for the most part we aren’t seeing the horrible things. It’s a nice (and cheap) way to gin up fear —you’re locked safe (maybe) inside while madness may or may not be going on outside. In fact, scarier still, maybe nothing is happening outside — if the wire service isn’t reporting anything and the police aren’t picking up their phones, how can you prove that anything is really going on? McHattie and Houle are great at playing the story straight. The movie is campy but it doesn’t present its story or characters with camp.

I’m not sure why the shoestring productions can achieve a bit of spookiness and a lot of entertainment while their big-budget counterparts often fall short, but I am glad that the increasing number of limited release films available via OnDemand when they’re first released into theaters means that this fun approach to horror is available to us outside the big cities. B

Not rated (be warned, there is some gore). Directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Tony Burgess, Pontypool is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by IFC Films. It is also available via the OnDemand option on Comcast.