Pontypool (2008): The Power of Words

Warning: This entry contains spoilers.

Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a radio host of Pontypool’s local radio station, CLSY, with Sydney (Lisa Houle) as his manager, and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) as a technical assistant. It’s a slow day at work, until shocking news come in from their helicopter reporter, Ken (Rick Roberts). He reports that a mob is forming outside Dr. John Mendez’s (Hrant Alianak) clinic with people doing out-of-the-ordinary things, such as imitating windshield wipers, biting others, and making indecipherable sounds, just to name a few. The radio station crew soon learn that an unexplainable and fatal virus is spreading around their small town.

At the start, viewers are cut-off and separated from the horror. It was a good hook since how the story was set up actually induced interest from the viewers. When things started unfolding, the only source of information was through Ken, who was already on the outside of the main setting to begin with. During the start, it felt like the main characters were one with the audience, as well. They weren’t part of the drama. They could only observe, absorb the situation, and make small useless comments and suggestions (i.e. Grant advising Ken: “Don’t go near him.”). We never saw the gore and chaos on-screen, and only relied on Ken’s phone calls, yet it still doesn’t stop us from being curious about the events happening.

Joan Hawkins’ article talks about “paracinema,” or films that appear to come from many essentially differing genres.1 The paracinematic culture validates “all forms of cinematic ‘trash’ whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture.”2 Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is classified as a horror film, but because of the movie’s pacing, how it was executed, the characters, the concepts included, and the dialogue, it didn’t feel much like one to me. It seems like it was much more intellectual, and that there was a higher form of art at work in the film.

The array of characters introduced each had their unique personalities, and it was fascinating watching them talk and clash with one another. Also, given the plot of the movie – where people somehow turn into zombies through the use of words – I found the setting used to be cleverly appropriate. Because of these things, it felt much more than the usual base low art horror films.

Personally, while watching the movie, I found myself getting bored and wondering, more than once, why we were watching it. I guess, in my case, after spending months of watching multiple horror films in class, I prefer the more thrilling and explicit “in-your-face” kind of horror films, which, according to the reading, is apparently classified as the lower art. 3 This could also explain why the parts I enjoyed most in the movie revolved around the characters trying to stay silent so as not to be heard and copied by the zombies.

I think I would have considered Pontypool to be more unique and interesting had this been the first time I experienced a medium that focused on language as a tool to attack. But I had watched something vastly similar to it years ago, and the whole time I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but compare it to what I was already familiar with. So if someone was contemplating on whether or not to watch Pontypool, I would instead recommend them to watch a Doctor Who episode (4×10), “Midnight.” It is about an unknown entity who is able to take over someone’s very being through the use of words. I have included a short video snippet below:

Both Pontypool and this particular Doctor Who episode are similar in the sense that focus is placed on how the monster infiltrates and attacks – through the use of language. Both are creepy because they show that you can be made vulnerable through the words that you use. And admittedly, I may be biased, but I believe that this particular episode of Doctor Who was better, more superior, and more interesting than the film that we watched in class.

The primary lesson that one can take away from the film is that language matters. All words have meaning and the way we choose how to use them serve as a personal representation about ourselves that we show to the people we interact with. It is scary to think about your own words literally being used against you, but this is what this film does. Now, I didn’t particularly like the movie, and I also didn’t consider it as scary, but I did walk away from it being thankful that I do know more than one language.

1 Joan Hawkins, “Sleaze Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002), 125.
2 Ibid, 126.
3 Ibid, 128.
4 BBCWorldwide. “Repeat After Me (Part One) – Midnight – Doctor Who – BBC.” [YouTube Video].


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