The dreaded final act. Often a crippler, always crucial. The taunting spectre that floats above the head of a screenwriter while he or she is working must call itself “Mr. Conclusion,” possessing supernatural powers that can stifle the less-resilient of film writers. Talents such as Frank Darabont have conquered the beast, as seen in the jackhammer-crunching finale of Darabont’s The Mist; others, however, haven’t been so fortunate. Take the iconic Steven Spielberg, for example—-his commercial-minded decision to conclude War of the Worlds with a shark-jumping happy ending blew an otherwise menacing and efficient film into Disappointment Hell.
Pontypool, a new independent horror film from Canadian director Bruce McDonald, is the latest film to see its potential crash to the floor in its final section. Rather than maintaining a cryptic mystery with minimal explanation, writer Tony Burgess takes the frustrating route and over-explain what’s come before, resulting in a thoroughly confusing and clunky finale. Made all the more infuriating due to the previous two-thirds of Pontypool working on practically every cylinder. [Continued after the jump]
A huge shame, because Pontypool is two-thirds of a fascinating exercise in intelligent and restrained intensity. The film, based on Burgess’ original book, centers on Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, holding down the fort with a tight performance), a big-time radio shock jock who has been relocated to Ontario’s hole-in-the-wall town of Pontypool. On a snowy night, the residents of Pontypool fall victim to a 28 Days Later-ish infection that turns them into cannibalistic loons. The clever catch, though, is that we’re discovering this along with Mazzy, his stern producer, and young tech engineer in the radio station.
As the outbreak gains in violent momentum, Pontypool also heightens, turning its noose around the audience’s senses firmer and firmer with gradual reveals and slick pacing. A call-in from the station’s field reporter trapped within the outside bedlam is especially creepy, given an overpowering air of macabre through a subtle touch, an out-of-nowhere baby’s voice coming from a should-be-dead victim. McHattie’s convincing escalation from too-cool to frantically shook is the perfect anchor, and McDonald’s close-ups of scared faces and use of a spinning camera capturing the reactions of the three station occupants exude a muscular tension.
Throughout the film’s 50 minutes, our protagonists are clueless as to what’s really going on outside the station, a feeling that’s mutual for the viewer. If Pontypool had just maintained that sense of uncertain helplessness until the end credits, we’d have one of the better horror films of the last couple years on our hands.
The lack of clarity is effective in ways that mirror the incredible Spanish cinema verite diamond [REC], and that’s no low compliment. Unfortunately, Pontypool goes the way of Quarantine‘s (the American remake of [REC]) head-beating conclusion. The cause of the town’s homicidal uproar turns out to be the spoken word, which gives the radio station setting a much more meaningful presence. Something about people forgetting what words mean and inserting false, influential-for-murder definitions into the infected person’s brain. A feeling of numbness sets in, and once somebody in the room talks, all hell breaks loose.
At least that’s what this writer has taken away from the film. The biggest wrench in this clarification comes in the form of a doctor character that enters the film a little past the halfway mark. He seems to know the deal, but then his actions consistently contradict and cloud his logic. At one point, the doctor’s mood changes and he starts mumbling incoherently; according to the film’s prior reveals, he appears to have switched over to the crazy side, but then he passes up an opportunity to kill off two other characters. How was he able to avoid the disease then?
Too many endgame plot-holes spoil what could’ve been a top-shelf thriller. The good technically outweighs the bad here, though, making Pontypool worthy of a look. Just go in with your analytical switch turned to “Off.”