Friday, June 22, 2012

For the Lulz: Pontypool

Explaining the threat in 2008's Pontypool requires spoiling. So, stop everything and watch Pontypool NOW.

When we were children, we were warned about "bad" words: phonemes whose utterance is forbidden. As teens, we learned that saying bad words is fun; the more of them we knew, the more of them we repeated. While we grew, so did the Internet, and its rise showed that newer, filthier phrases could be spread at the speed of thought. Meme culture flourished online, where its participants can repost catchphrases and pictures as fast as a mouse can be clicked: a community of members obsessed with repetition of the taboo. The dissemination of words gone wrong is the focus of Pontypool, a horror film about the power of language.

A musical adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only a taste of the terror to come.
Pontypool is part Crazies (1973), part The Signal (2008) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). A down-on-his-luck DJ in a Canadian small town is slogging through his morning show when reports come in about rioting at a doctor's office: The community is afflicted by disease, and the military is called in to quarantine. From this setup, it may seem like Pontypool is just another zombie movie, but the ideas and writing are unique.

The action takes place inside the claustrophobic interiors of a radio station; the only place of safety is a soundproof room. Outside is a "a big, cold, dull, dark, white, empty, never-ending, blow-my-brains-out, seasonal-affective-disorder, freaking-kill-me-now" snowstorm that traps the protagonists like the mists of The Mist (2007).

I thought joy-crushing snow was Canada's default weather.
The story is told through news updates and frantic phone calls. We know only as much as the main characters: Is the whole thing a hoax? The situation worsens gradually; first, sightings of violence from a local reporter. Now the reporter is in dire straits and infected. Then, as in 28 Days Later (2002), the trouble is "on the street outside. It [is] coming through [the] windows": Someone inside the studio is ill, the zombies are banging on the front doors, then they're in the studio itself.

The virus in Pontypool is carried in the English language: Some words are infectious. Upon hearing them, the listeners stutter in alarm, repeating the offending word until progressing into mimicry. These zombies are not fast, they do not moan, they do not spread their disease through bites: They repeat things, and that noise is far worse than groaning silence. Anyone can be infected if they focus on the wrong word. It's a little out there so far as concept goes, but it works: Phonemes are threats.

The primary form of Internet culture today is the meme: An idea transmitted and reiterated from person to person. Pontypool's crowds are meme-infected, repeating jokes until no longer funny, until they are just background noise.

"Trolls be trollin'!"
The idea of technology, of language, of words as danger has appeared in other works. The peril of radio signaling is handled adeptly by the short film AM1200 (2008). Technology was a vector for an infectious sound that turned people into zombies in Stephen King's novel Cell (2006). Dangerous words and information were seen in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness; in Carpenter's case, it's reading that gets you into trouble. The final punch line of In the Mouth of Madness is an infectious book being turned into a movie--its vector mutated for better transmission.

It's a rare film that manages to challenge our obsession with technology, talk radio, our understanding of language, of memes and of zombies at the same time. Questions about free speech, language, the nature of disease all combine in a film that manages to bring something new to the already dead and shambling zombie genre.


  1. Alternative caption for that last picture.. "Open the Bloodgaaaaaates!"

  2. Mark Twain wrote a version of the hunting doggerel story in 1876 as short fiction titled "A Literary Nightmare" or "Punch, Brothers, Punch!". Kind of a post Civil War meme-cautionary tale.

  3. I dig this movie. McHattie is excellent, and deserves better roles than "guy who gets head cut off" in Immortals. I also loved the atmosphere it built up, and the descriptions of the "zombies" are wonderfully creepy – "the screaming baby coming from Mary Gold's eldest son's last dying gasps," trying to climb inside people through the mouth...

    My only criticism is I don't much care for the actor who plays the doctor--felt kinda goofy compared to the rest of the film.

    And for another kinda-vaguely related written work, there's the recent "The Flame Alphabet," in which the words of children become fatal to adults. It's averaged only mediocre scores on places like Amazon and Goodreads, but book-loving friends I trust and almost always agree with insist it's great.

    1. Another words as viruses classic is Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash", in which ancient Sumerian Words are such low-level communication that it can subconsciously affect the brain. Worth a read, if you haven't already.

    2. A copy of "Snowcrash" makes a brief cameo in this film.

    3. Didn't know that, what other books make a cameo?

    4. I saw that and I had no idea what the hell it was doing there.