The first time I saw the word “Pontypool,” I was in the bathroom at Chicago’s Music Box – a famous, old movie palace – attending the annual 24-hour horror-fest known as The Massacre. A slanted poster with the complete running order of the festival was taped to the tile wall. Though I knew most of the fest’s schedule, I had overlooked one film…
The one that was next. The one that had the prime slot.
Drinking at the bar across the street was preferable to seeing this movie. This plan was on everyone’s mind. You could feel it. No one had heard of Pontypool. It wasn’t a classic film or a cult film. It hadn’t been in theatres. No special guest stars were present and, if they were, you probably hadn’t heard of them. And it was called Pontypool, for Christ’s sake; not a great title for a horror movie. The only data I had was some overheard chatter that it was a zombie movie. I do love zombies, but in 2008, zombie burnout was at an all-time high. Unless it was Fulci, or Romero, or 28 Days Later, this crowd did not care. Seriously. We did not care.
Returning to the theatre, I debated leaving. The festival organizers could sense the attrition and announced, “Hey! Don’t leave! This is the best zombie movie of the decade. You won’t want to miss it. It’s really special. And forget the title!” they pleaded over the PA system, “We know it’s a weird title for a zombie movie. But it’s really good!”
So as the movie started, I sat down. Though you don’t see a “zombie” (herein called “conversationalists”) for a good hour, I’m glad I made that choice.
About 45 minutes in, the 1,000 attendees were dead silent – no shuffling, no coughing, no asides or laughs, and no attrition. Just absolute attention. People did not want to break the spell. We loved, loved this movie. And we loved it together. And, like most horror fans, we now adored the fact that no one had ever heard of it. It was our secret treasure. We were in on the ground floor of this, the rarest of things: a really good zombie movie.
What made it so special?
Well, firstly, almost everything that happens is in your imagination. Set in a talk radio station, the story is about Day One of an outbreak, where the characters receive information as we, the audience, receives it – in confusing sound bites, in drips and drabs, without confirmed authority. Slowly, together, we realize: this is bad, really bad trouble. Secondly, with no idea how the infection spreads, there is as much paranoia on display here as in Carpenter’s The Thing; paranoia makes for some fascinating chemistry. Lastly, the movie was about language – people talk and talk, not like in a Tarantino film, but in the way you and I talk when we’re coming to grips with a nightmare problem. And all that talking is directly related to the infection.
I won’t blow the story for you here, since it has tricks up its sleeve. But I will say I thought about that movie for days. And so did others. Not because of the violence or performances, but because of the story. By popular demand, the Music Box showed the movie again two weeks after The Massacre. Those who had seen it the first time brought back friends. And, like the virus itself, word about this Canadian low-budget wonder started to spread…
As I anxiously awaited release of a DVD so I could add it to my collection, a funny thing happened. It never came out. Rather than a first appearance, these two showings seemed, in the years following, to be the ONLY appearances. Between 2008 and 2010, the film disappeared completely.
Once, while late-night cable surfing in 2010, I stumbled across the movie. It was like remembering a dream. (I had the same fascination with Dudley Moore’s Bedazzled when I was a kid. I caught the film on TV and liked it, but couldn’t remember the title. In the pre-IMDB.com, pre-VHS/DVD, pre-OnDemand days, there was no way a person could find a movie again unless by accident. It wasn’t until my twenties that I even knew that movie was called Bedazzled.) I must admit I was shocked to have found Pontypool playing anywhere after such dormancy. I TiVo’d the second half and watched it twice.
Over the next two years, more and more people started to name-drop the movie – even people outside of horror. At last, the film got picked up by NetFlix, and that’s where many discovered it. New fans were being minted every day. This film that never saw a major release was on the map!
In Chicago in 2012, Pontypool was adapted into a stage play by original screenwriter Tony Burgess and local wunderkind Anderson Lawfer. The play premiered at Strawdog Theatre and continued for a popular eight-week run. Not surprising that it made the leap to stage, since it had previously been not only a movie, but a novel, also by Tony Burgess, and an audio drama for Canadian radio. (I’m waiting for the Pontypool the Musical to turn up somewhere.) Asked if he ever considered alternate titles, Burgess’s answer makes sense, considering all these formats: “(Keeping the title) mattered to me because I was adapting so loosely that without the title Pontypool, which was in the title of the original 1998 novel (Pontypool Changes Everything,) the connection might get tenuous. Also, the word carries significance and you don't wanna toss it out.”
When asked about his own experience in discovering Pontypool, Anderson Lawfer recalls, “I happened to be flipping through NetFlix, lookin’ for a good zombie flick. If you are like me, then you know that while there are lots of zombie films, there aren’t that many good zombie films, so you have to learn to shut it off and move on. I give every zombie movie 10 minutes. Well, this one was awesome. From beginning to end.”
The film tends to stick, meaning that people see it, remember it, and champion it to others. This was common in the cinema of the pre-video age, where a film wasn’t widely available, but is rarer nowadays. Either something is completely forgotten or it explodes all at once, such as with Psy’s Gangnam Style rap video. Is this something Burgess ever thought would happen to Pontypool – an old school, slowly growing wave? “I'm very much a believer in things being discovered by people on their own. It was how I've found the movies, books, and music that I like. And yes, things stick longer because the moment of discovery is personal. I think the fact that the radio play was an adaptation of the novel and the film was an adaptation of the radio play gave it a shape-shifting DNA. It was easy from the beginning to see it existing in different forms.”
When asked how he made the stage play production happen with input from the original writer, whom he did not know prior, Lawfer remarks, “Since the circumstances all happen in one place, I thought that it would make a cool play. I did some research, found the book, gave it a read, and then I located Tony’s contact information. I sent him an email and told him that I wanted to discuss the possibility of trying to get this on stage and he was very supportive. We talked almost every day about little changes and overall script themes we wanted to bring out and stuff we thought we could toss… The coolest thing about that guy is that his words aren’t precious to him. That is so important when you make a new play or adapt, because when somebody thinks that their words are the be all and end all, then the show generally sucks. Reading a story and seeing a story are different things.”
Who or what circumstances do you think keep the film alive and in circulation? Was it the cost of the film (profitability), the new rush of on-demand content, such as NetFlix streaming, film festivals programming the piece, or strictly the interest of the fans? “I'm not certain,” considers Burgess. “Pontypool has a chaotic life. Things play into it – the rules of distribution, access and promotion, some of that has extended its life. And clearly Horror and film blogs have played a big role.”
“I love Horror!” exclaims Lawler. “Mainly stuff that is ‘societal’ horror. None of that torture bullshit. Stuff that speaks to our world is what I like, apocalyptic stuff, viral stuff… No scary clowns or youth hostels in Amsterdam or whatever. That shit is a young man’s game.”
Recently, Pontypool disappeared from on-demand content on NetFlix, only to return six weeks later. The movie will probably continue to be like that. Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray a full four years after being completed, Pontypool is now readily accessible. But will it last?
When asking Burgess about the future Faustian choices, such as:
If you could choose just one outcome, which would you prefer:
1. Pontypool continues at this level of popularity for generations, long after you are dead.
2. You write something else entirely that completely eclipses Pontypool both in quality and duration of success.
…his clear answer is: “Well, you always want to produce better work so that's easy.”
Will his next endeavor will be as indelible as Pontypool? Only time will tell.
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.