Whenever talk-radio and cable-news hosts are accused of rousing the rabble with incendiary, sloppily sourced rants, the hosts usually retreat to the same pat defenses: “I’m just an entertainer,” or “I’m just trying to get people talking.” In the avant-horror film Pontypool, Stephen McHattie plays a radio jock squarely in the pot-stirrer mold. Recently drummed out of yet another major market, McHattie is stuck in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, where he’s reduced to taking potshots at local law enforcement between weather reports. Then one morning, he winds up at the center of a public crisis. Reports flood into the station of people rioting in the streets of Pontypool, babbling like loons. Some sort of virus is spreading rapidly through the populace, and the carrier of the bug appears to be language itself. And just by talking about the problem on the air, McHattie may be making it worse.
Pontypool is reasonably effective as a zombie story. Veteran Can-indie director Bruce McDonald stages nearly all the action at the radio station—more than half the film takes place in a cramped sound booth—yet he’s able to suggest the crisis outside with sound design alone, and to build suspense even when the characters are taking precautions by staying silent or chattering in pidgin versions of foreign languages, which are immune from the virus. Primarily though, the film works as a tour de force for McHattie—a veteran character actor making the most of his character’s long, fluid monologues—and as a sly commentary on journalistic responsibility. At first, McHattie seems to enjoy anchoring a broadcast that’s drawing international attention, but throughout, his conscientious producer Lisa Houle pesters him about whether it’s really appropriate for him to be goosing the drama, as when he urges the station’s field reporter to get closer to the monsters. There’s a lot of subtext in Pontypool (and some of it isn’t so “sub”) about how meaningless conversation can be a kind of plague. Yet the greater evil may be the words that sound meaningful, but are really just diverting. Those can do real damage.