As a rabid fan of the horror genre, I can honestly say that there is nothing more satisfying than when someone gets it right. You see, horror comes in many flavours from slasher flicks with lots of blood to tense thrillers with lots of jump scares to terrifying supernatural events to flesh rending zombies.
As with any genre, there are good examples and bad examples, but horror is unique in its ability to use its medium to make a point; to truly send home a message. Where a drama will deliver its message set against the circumstances of real life, in horror it is when the message is set against the grotesque and horrifying that it seems simplistic and easy to digest in comparison.
Take for example The Crazies, a film originally made in 1973 by George A. Romero in which a town is infected by a biological weapon that turns them into beings of pure rage. As the town turns on itself, viewers are left with the deep and unnerving understanding that everyone has the potential for hate and violence. The film simply gives us a look at one person’s opinion of what would happen if we let it out. (This film was remade in 2010 starring Timothy Oliphant and was, actually, quite good.)
Few horror films have driven home their message in a more tense and terrifying (nor effective) way than Pontypool. Released in 2008 and starring Stephen McHattie, one of Canada’s great screen actors, the film centres on a morning radio show host. Grant Mazzy, it seems, has found himself in some trouble and the only place he could get a job was a small town radio station ““ a far cry from his previous big city, big show former life. Mazzy is at work one morning with his producer Sydney (played by McHattie’s real-life wife Lisa Houle) when reports of riots and attacks begin coming in from the surrounding area. The crew inside the station isn’t completely sure what’s happening, but they are certain that people are dying.
Now, it’s possible that I am biased because director Bruce McDonald is one of my favourite filmmakers (who has contributed a not inconsiderable amount to the creation of a national cinema in Canada, something I’m also a big fan of), but I think that there is no better understated horror movie than Pontypool.
The film is tense from beginning to end without getting gory or brutal unnecessarily. Every character in the film is surprised both by the violence within them and the violence in their friends and family. And, perhaps most importantly, this film carries a profound message about the power of language and ideas. While this was certainly a terrifying thought in 1998 when Tony Burgess wrote the book “Pontypool Changes Everything”, it is definitely a terrifying thought in today’s information saturated world.
The ways in which ideas can begin to sprout, spread and take hold in the digital age are so much more complex than they were when only the radio, TV and print media had our attention. It is terrifying to think that an idea can spread around the globe in only a few short minutes, and can become an overnight sensation in days. The film brings up many questions about morality, diversity and appropriate behaviour for all forms of communication and will only continue to deepen in meaning as it ages.
This is, of course, also including some excellent zombie (or infected, if you prefer) makeup, scenes and effects, which only make this film more compelling. That said, Pontypool uses even the infected to drive home its point. The majority of the “horror” in this film actually happens inside the viewer’s mind, since the action is described rather than shown. Everyone knows that the imagination is worse than whatever a film crew can put on screen, because our visceral reaction to our own imaginations cannot be controlled to the same extent as our reaction to what we see. In this way, the film uses words to show you the horror, but also as the carrier of disease.
The first time I saw it, I was riveted and terrified, not the least of which was my pervasive dread that words are, in fact, the most elegant disease ever perpetrated on mankind and that since I am a writer I am contributing to that disease’s spread every day. For this reason alone I think the understated horror of Pontypool is an essential to any film lover, but I also think that a film such as this makes us all take pause about the words we use, which is an essential for every human being on earth, film fan or no.