In tired horror genre, Pontypool changes everything

October is an interesting time in the movie industry, particularly in its relation to the horror genre. The two seem almost mutually exclusive; horror movies are nearly always released in October and nearly all films released in October are horror movies. This exclusivity does not seem to be purely the consequence of seasonal genres either. For example, though December sees an increased rate of Christmas movies, as that is the seasonal genre, they are not the only major releases at that time. Often, we see the premieres of large budgeted – yet non topically festive – films in that month, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. In fact, the highest grossing film on a Christmas Day is Guy Pearce’s 2009 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. No Christmas movie even breaks the top 10 on that list.

Arguably, summer has a similar bond to the action genre, but this too seems to be not as concrete. Yes, many action movies come out in the summer. But so do many films of other upbeat genres. Summer is the ideal season for premiering star-studded comedies like Ted or Pitch Perfect 2, as well as children’s movies like Inside Out and Shrek the Third. Additionally, action is the predominant genre of this cinematic period and many action movies are released outside of the bounds of summer. One only has to look at the examples previously provided of non-Christmas movies released in December to see evidence of this.

Given this unique connection between the horror genre and the month of October, it is only natural that movie marathons in this season would have an inclination toward the macabre, especially as All Hallow’s Eve approaches. Curling up in front of a screen with a handful of friends for a night of spooks is an appealingly festive way to spend the holiday.

There’s just one problem with that concept: there aren’t many great horror movies.

Horror fans, allow me a chance to elaborate before erupting into anger-fueled rants. I am not attempting to invalidate your favorite genre. I am merely stating that for most audiences, the current state of horror films leaves a lot to be desired. Genre buffs may be quick to point out old classics: Nosferatu, Night of the Living Dead,Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist; the list goes on and on. These are all fine films, many of which are among my favorites, but for most folks, they do not have the same impact that they might have once had on first release.

This is for a couple of different reasons. First and most obvious, many audiences may not be able to get past outdated special effects, thus holding them back from becoming fully engrossed in the film. But another point that might not be as readily apparent is that old horror films are less likely to resonate thematically to the modern viewer. Horror films are often products of their eras, reflecting the anxieties of the times in a gruesome mirror. Unless a viewer can empathize with the morals of an older film or an find a way to apply those morals to the modern day (which can be difficult given the product permanence of the film medium), the experience is likely to fall flat. Again this is a broad generalization, but unless a viewing party is comprised solely of horror buffs or classic cinephiles, these observations are likely to ring true.

Yet contemporary horror flicks do not strike a chord either. When is the last time there was a compelling scary movie in theaters? Ever since Paranormal Activity minimized expenses while maximizing profits, the market has been saturated with found-footage and/or jump-scare movies. This is not to condescend those who find genuine thrill in the jump-scare. To be able to experience that thrill purely from not knowing what comes next is borderline commendable in my view. However, for those who do not have that same ability, the viewing experience can become boring. The dull period between spooky monsters jumping out of nowhere at relatively predictable points does not a compelling film make.

There are some smaller horror films, though, that thankfully bring refreshing innovation to the tired genre. A prime example is 2008’s Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald. Written by Tony Burgess as an adaptation to his 1995 novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, the film fell under the radar despite much critical praise.

Pontypool is a film so original that it is difficult to describe. Though, at the risk of oversimplifying the concept, the best one sentence summary I can provide for the movie’s premise is this: Pontypool plays like a zombie film as written by a linguistics professor. And given Burgess’ degree in semiotics from the University of Toronto, that description is not too far off. Compounding to that, Burgess graduated in 1995, the same year that he published the novel on which the film is based.

Unfortunately, Pontypool has not received widespread fame. As one might have guessed from my summary above, the premise of the film is complicated and difficult to market. On top of that, the film was produced independently in Canada on an incredibly small budget. With not much money to spend, and cut off from the power bloc that is Hollywood, Pontypool was left to hang in the nether. However, in recent years the film has been made available on content streaming services such as Netflix, which has allowed the film to find a somewhat larger audience.

Set in the small, real-life town of Pontypool, Ontario, the movie follows the story of Grant Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, a former shock-jock radio DJ whose career has shriveled to the point where he is now only employable to small local stations. As Mazzy arrives to the station early in the morning to begin his daily ritual of trying to push the envelope of rural sensibilities on-air, much to the chagrin of his producer, he begins to receive reports of a large mob raging through the quiet town. Initially believing that he is the victim of a prank, Mazzy soon finds himself in the center of an international news story as the world struggles to understand the mysterious calamity that has befell the otherwise unnotable Canadian town.

It is important here to note that though I used the word “zombie” earlier, the antagonists of Pontypool are not exactly what come to mind when hearing that term. Even the director of the film has hesitated to use the word in interviews, preferring to describe the creatures with the rather lackluster nomenclature, “conversationalists.” You see, in Pontypool, the virus is not spread through bite nor is it directly comparable to known diseases. In Pontypool, the virus is spread through the understanding of a concept and the English language is infected. That notion is likely confusing, and though I could elaborate, I will allow readers the opportunity to see the film for themselves.

I would encourage anyone else who is as unsatisfied by most mainstream horror films to give Pontypool a chance. If it strikes your fancy, Burgess has a fine catalogue of novels and has also continued to write film adaptations of his work, such as 2014’s Hellmouth, again starring McHattie. Burgess has also adapted Pontypool for the stage with the script set for an April release. Pontypool is available on DVD, BluRay and Netflix Instant Watch.