Playing, at least for its first half, like a top-notch episode of TV’s “The Twilight Zone”, Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool unfortunately gets bogged down by its own pretensions as it continues. Set almost entirely within the office of a local AM radio station, the film unfolds in a manner similar to Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds”. Through audio contact with the outside world, we’re given an impression of widespread chaos, even as the visual backdrop barely changes. A take-no-prisoners talk radio DJ, played with verve by Stephen McHattie, becomes our narrator as apocalypse looms.
The threat, as far as I could tell, comes from words themselves. Apparently, certain words in the English language have mutated here, resulting in an affliction that creates zombie-like behavior in its victims. It’s a premise that the film never satisfyingly sells, despite plenty of babble (the title is taken from the town where the action unfolds, but is also a complicated play on words). Nevertheless, MacDonald creates an impressive sense of escalating tension throughout the film’s early scenes. By the midpoint of Pontypool, this strain reaches a fever pitch, as callers to the radio station relay audio evidence of the terror that lies outside the shelter of the church that doubles as the broadcasting hub. For a brief passage, Pontypool offers edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Unfortunately, Pontypool seems to have been designed with the pretense that it has something powerful to say about the power of words. Hitler’s name is invoked more than once, and the chanting of the unthinking crowds point to the fact that this disease is supposed to stand as a metaphor for the ability of language to twist people toward evil ends. The message, despite the backdrop of talk radio, never becomes more than bland, though. One can’t help but wish MacDonald had taken the film in a less intellectual direction instead, if this was all that his pontifications would have resulted in.