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Pontypool is the best recent film you haven't seen.

Adapted from Tony Burgess' novel by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, Pontypool arrived on the scene during the Toronto International Film Festival of 2008. It slowly hit markets and enjoyed a limited release last Spring, while slipping onto IFC Midnight, Canadian DVD last July, and finally U.S. DVD just last week. It dances just out of reach of the mass movie-going conscious, but it's a terrible shame. This psychological thriller offers thrills and bloody viral chaos for the horror folks, verbal banter and literary cues for the linguists and English fiends, tensions and oddities for those who like to think and question, and the irreplaceable Stephen McHattie to entertain us all.
Grant Mazzy (McHattie) is a gruff, hat-wearing, self-indulgent Don Imus-type who has been fired from his big-time job and forced to take on a small beans radio show for the little Ontario town of Pontypool. In the early morning hours during Mazzy's drive to work, a woman appears out of nowhere, bangs on his car window, and disappears into the snow. He is unsettled, but drives on. At the small-time station soon after, nestled in the basement of a church, Mazzy wonders if he should have called 911.

Soon that morning interlude is the least of his worries, as troublesome reports pour in from across Pontypool. A mundane standoff with some fisherman gives way to reports that a mob is surrounding the local doctor's office. People are going crazy, repeating words, and swarming the uninfected like bugs. Mazzy's crew -- Sydney (Lisa Houle) and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) -- struggle to make sense of it all from the basement's removed and isolated location. The wire is strangely silent, but it isn't long before accounts start pouring in that paint an eerie and dangerous picture.

Pontypool preys on the strengths and weaknesses of isolation -- the perks of being removed from the dangerous chaos outside, seemingly safe, but stuck in the terror of the unknown. We find comfort from meaning and explanation, but for the folks in that basement and the town surrounding it, there is none. Therein lies the rub, as well as the backbone of the film -- meaning is no longer a comfort.

As the one-sheet teases: "Words lose their meaning when you repeat them," and Pontypool is plagued with a virus that seems to lurk in words and their meaning. At least, that's the assumption. Nothing is certain in the virus-plagued world of Pontypool, and the only safety seems to be in silence and absurdity. One is easy for Mazzy, the other -- not so much. The shock jock thrives on words, metaphor, sarcasm -- the simplest and most mundane radio utterance turned into poetry as it escapes Mazzy's lips. Torrents of thoughts and words stream from his mouth, and as he desperately tries to help and save the people of Pontypool, there's the distinct possibility that he's part of the problem, if not the source.

It's a premise that might take some getting used to, but is no less ridiculous than the myriad of other plagues that have hit the big screens. Cinema always revels in absurd science to move its story forward. This time, it's new in its literalness, yet old in its theme. The idea of viral language has been batted about for years, and author/screenwriter Tony Burgess is well aware of the work laid out before him. You might spot the copy of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which deals with mind-altering viruses) in the film, note the importance of Mazzy referencing Roland Barthes, remember William S. Burrough's idea that language is a virus, or, at its most vague, the teen anthem of Pump Up the Volume, which labeled truth as a virus.

It's the horror movie of words, owing as much to literary tradition as it does to the old radio serials and fear trapped into scary radio broadcasts a la Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds." But that's not all there is. Stationed in a small room with only three main characters, the sense of cinematic claustrophobia exacerbates the tension without ever seeming stagnant. McDonald keeps his camera moving, swimming from Mazzy to his producer and back again. They rarely move, but McDonald does, quickly enough to evoke action without jumping so fast that he doesn't catch that look of panic in the eyes, the faces trying to comprehend the horror around them.

There are no big geysers of blood, chainsaws, or overt moments of gore, yet Pontypool offers enough blood and chilling moments to evoke the horror of the situation, and enough humor to keep things interesting, working as both a simple and fun horror piece, and a brain-bender absolutely overflowing with hints, allusions, and scattered puzzle pieces. It's the sort of film you can see a second, third, or fourth time and still find something you missed before. You can pour over the details, or simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

And in a world where smart and fun so rarely come together, Pontypool is one hell of a breath of fresh air.
Note: If you're a fan and wonder what McDonald says about the virus and its stages, click here.
categories Features, Cinematical