Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stop Making Sense! Bruce McDonald reinvents horror via PONTYPOOL


I can't recall another critics' screening of a "scare" film from which the audience departed with a silly grin on its face. Whether this grin meant enjoyment-plus-bafflement, as in my case, or dismissal, I can't honestly say. One fellow in the men's room immedi-
ately after, still grin-
ning, shook his head and offered, "What a piece of shit."

"No," TrustMovies countered, "these guys are trying to reinvent the horror film. And I think they've done a good job of it!" These guys are Canadian director Bruce McDonald (shown right, who earlier gave us The Tracey Fragments and -- as director/co-writer -- the Canuck Indian movie Dance Me Outside: two disparate films with little more than Canada in common) and Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything.

As someone who's been begging of late for a genuine reinvention of the zombie movie, I couldn't ask for much more than the new McDonald/Burgess collaboration, PONTYPOOL -- which adds class, wit and intelligence (semiotics anyone?) to the realm of the flesh-eating undead. (Though it's almost unfair to count this film a "zombie" movie, as its concern is more the virus than the infected.) From the credits onwards, McDonald demonstrates a love of the visual that is both beautiful and unsettling -- and very unlike the obvious, aren't-we-fragmented look of his heavy-handed Tracey Fragments). Here, his interesting, well-composed, wide-screen images are all the more surprising because most simply show us the basement of a drab church, and in particular, the even more confining space of a sound studio. This is not the usual subject of a Panavision lens, so credit must be paid to cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak for making us pay such keen attention.

Much of the movie is devoted to sound: its source, destination and raison d'etre. And you'd have to go back to maybe Klute to find another instance of an event being transmitted verbally rather than visually that proves even more horrifying. Best not to know much about the plot (don't read the usual reviews): Just go and savor. McDonald and Burgess do a fine job of ramping up suspense while dropping enough clues/evidence to keep us involved and trying to solve things, just as are the protagonists. And their cast, led by Stephen McHattie (above), handles the sometimes complicated emotional maneuvers smartly.

Toward the film's ramped-up finale, at times I wondered if the movie might be a sly Québécois separatist ploy -- or a worldwide Francophile plot to get us all speaking Français. Maybe. But it's also some talented film folk pushing the envelope and giving (well, some of) us thrills, chills, blood, guts and a thought-provoking, damn good time. The ending (the film's actual ending, rather than its climax) is so nitwit and brilliant that this, I think, is what put those silly grins on our faces at the end of the screening. During the recent Cannes fest, word arose that Pontypool is to have a sequel. Oh, my. Oh, well. Could it come up to the level of, let alone improve on, its predecessor? Which brings me to this:

Desperate to find a way out of their situation, the characters light upon a possibility that is so bizarre and abstreuse that they -- let alone we -- can barely keep up with it. So suspenseful are these moments, however, that we don't have time to do more than race along with them. It's after the fact that we may start wondering: Hmmm... This was like trying not to think of a pink elephant. Once you try not to, that's all you can do. Of course, the elephant's an image, which is not the same thing as "meaning." Or is it? An image can "mean," right? See what I mean? What do I mean? Don't be mean. Mean? Mean, mean, mean... Excuse me now, I must feast on fresh flesh.

Pontypool opens its limited theatrical release on Friday, May 29, at NYC's Cinema Village. Nationwide, you can see it beginning Wednesday, May 27, at IFC On-Demand via the cable systems below in their quadrants noted:
BrightHouse: Movies On Demand - IFC In Theaters
Cablevision: Movies On Demand - IFC In Theaters - Festival Direct
Comcast: Channel 1 - Movies & Events - IFC Festival Direct
Cox: Channel 1 - Movies On Demand - IFC In Theaters
Time Warner: Movies On Demand - IFC In Theaters

Photo of director Bruce McDonald by Caitlin Cronenberg.
All photos from Pontypool by Miroslaw Baszak.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

No James no! "Mean" is "Mobile", "Mean" is "Mobile", "Mean" is...aw screw it he's a gonner. Lets just hope there isn't some anti-climactic countdown in french to rap this comment righ-dix, neuf, huit...

James van Maanen said...

Why, thanks, Anon, for taking all this just one step farther (further?)! And being so clever about it, too. Pontypool seems to inspire just this kind of thing. I still think there has not been anything more creative or original in the horror genre over the past three years (though [REC]3 comes pretty close, entertainment-wise, anyway...).