No Pontypool Blu-ray? Don't Stand For That! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

It took me a long time to get to Pontypool, and for a silly reason. I'd been hearing all the positive praise and critical reviews for it. But at some point when Pontypool was still pretty new, I saw another contemporary zombie that featured an attack on a talk radio station. I can't for the life of me recall what that movie was now, but it had me convinced that I'd seen Pontypool and I wasn't terribly impressed with it.  Finally, last year, I actually did see Pontypool and I was rather impressed, so I looked up the blu-ray release online and... apparently we never got one?
So Pontypool is a zombie film? Well, no, not really...  First of all, on the Lenzi scale, it would rate a pretty strong "no, they're infected people!"  Once you get past that, I guess I'd have to say it is a zombie movie, in that people get infected, turn mindless and kill, and they even move about like zombies.  But I certainly wouldn't blame any horror fan, especially any looking for a Romero-style tale, for really resenting this film. Because it's a very different experience, one that hinges more on linguistics and wordplay. If you're having a strong reaction one way or the other to that explanation - either that sounds super interesting and right up my alley or that sounds stupid and boring - I'd say go with that instinct. It's a divisive film, and if you think you're going to love it or hate it in advance, you're probably right.   But I can tell you it's very well made.  There are a few bumps and imperfections, certainly, but for the most part if you feel the premise has potential, then the film lives up that potential.
Essentially, the plot is this.  A somewhat famous talk radio host has found his career on slipping, so Mr. Big Shot Radio Personality walks into a tiny small town station for his first day at his new job.  It's just him, the station manager and a young assistant filling a lot of dead air.  Things are about as uneventful as they can be when a small church group comes in to sing a song on the air, but get a little weird when one of the small girls says she can't remember the words and soon can only repeat the sound "prah" over and over again.  Then they check in with their local traffic reporter who winds up witnessing and describing what looks like a hostage situation, where crowds of people are gathered around a building chanting.  It turns out certain words in the English language (and sounds, too) have become infected, and when the mind tries to process them, it essentially fails, and eventually turns the listener into a thoughtless killer.  They're actually probably closest to the zombies in Stephen King's recent Cell, if you've seen that.
To give you a better idea, this film never leaves the radio station (except for a short look at the talk show host's drive to work during the opening credits).  We've basically got four main characters locked in a single location for the duration of the film, with a few supporting roles popping in and some characters we only hear over the radio.  Very low on action, very high on talk, although there are a few bloody moments in the third act.  It's almost an intellectual exercise, closer to films like Circle or Fermat's Room than Zombie, although I can assure you this is definitely a superior film in all departments to those two examples. Character actor Stephen McHattie is great in the lead, and the rest of the cast is quite good, too; although Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly each have one or two stilted lines which make it feel almost like the editor used the wrong take.  But it's a smart film, shot well, and keeps you leaning in even with its very slow pace.  In fact, in the final act, I almost wish they would've kept things a little slower and more subdued rather than worrying about "delivering" on the horror promise.  But it all works.  It's not a masterpiece, and this may be a bit of a back-handed compliment given the state of things; but I think it's one of the best modern horror films we've gotten in the past decade.
IFC Films released Pontypool on DVD - but not, as I've said, on blu-ray - in 2010.  There are two versions, the standard special edition and a no frills "Blockbuster Exclusive" edition that gives me warm little "ding, dong, the witch is dead" feelings.  For the record, I have watched the Blockbuster disc, and it's exactly the same transfer, but without any of the extras except for the trailer, and it's front-loaded with a bunch of bonus trailers that play on start-up.  But while this is in no danger of dethroning any of my favorite horror films, I was taken enough with it that I felt it deserved a proper place in my collection.  I wasn't going to settle for a compressed, SD edition of a film that's streaming all over the place in HD.  So I looked around, and thankfully there's plenty of blu-ray import options.  I went with the UK blu from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.  It's all region, too; so there's no reason any US citizen should have to put up with just a DVD.  So now, let's see how much the blu improves.
IFC Films' 2010 DVD on top; Kaleidoscope's 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Well, naturally, it's the same root transfer on both discs.  What else would you expect?  It's a contemporary film, brand new when the discs were released, and shot on digital.  It's got a very processed look to it, which is clearly a deliberate choice of the filmmakers, and a very wide 2.34:1 frame.  But, for being the same transfer, there is a clear distinction between the high and standard definition presentations.  This isn't a hold a magnifying glass up to the screenshots and study the edges difference, the blu-ray is a lot softer and smudgier, while the blu is decidedly sharper and clearer. Highlights pop a lot more, too.  I'm glad I held out of the blu on this one, because it's enough to really effect the viewing experience.

Sound wise, both offer a 5.1 mix, though of course only the blu is DTS-HD.  That's all good, because this is a new film, so it's not like there's an original mono or stereo track we've lost.  The film was made for a 5.1 and that's what we get, live it up.  One slight disappointment with the blu, is the DVD had English and Spanish subtitles, while the blu has none.  So if you need subtitles, you're SOL.  And, yaknow, the dialogue is uniquely crucial here.
Now extras in this case are a bit of a queer duck, although I suppose that's fitting for a movie like Pontypool.  Most of the extras are the same across either release.  One of the reasons I went with the UK blu is because it had the commentary and stuff, unlike a few other imports I looked at.  And so, to start with, let's talk about the director's audio commentary.

The commentary doesn't do much direct commenting on the film, really - although it does at points.  It's presented as a "script meeting" between the director and screenwriter who are working on Pontypool sequels.  Apparently, this film is based on a portion of a book, and they want to make this a trilogy to cover the whole thing.  So they spend most of the commentary not talking about the movie we're looking at, but their proposed sequels... which sound awful and like they have no idea what made the first one so compelling.  Years later, both of them have gone on to make plenty of other films, with Pontypool Changes still in limbo, which from what I've heard is just as it should be.  I mean, if it ever does come out, I'll give it a chance, but I'll be happy if that day never comes.  Still, it is somewhat interesting, and you do wind up learning a bit about the book and the backstory to the film as they relate to the non-existent sequels.  And the "meeting" ends about twenty minutes or so before the film does, at which point they do provide a little actual audio commentary, which is better.
Next up is the "Pontypool Original Radio Play."  That makes it sound like there was a radio play before the film, doesn't it?  And it was filmed, so they included it here?  Well, no.  Actually what this is, is a the dialogue, music and sound from the film edited down to an hour-long audio-only version of the story.  Played over a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills.  I would definitely not recommend listening to this shortly after watching the film, because it's everything you just saw in the film, just without pictures and edited a little shorter.  Kind of a pointless feature.  But if you wanted to rip it and listen to it during a long commute to work, it would make for a pretty high quality podcast.

And stranger still, we next come to the "Horror Collection:" two bonus short films, which as far as I can tell - and I've spent some serious time looking into it - have no connection to Pontypool other than the fact that they're both Canadian and loosely horror-themed.  Because I wouldn't actually even call these horror films.  They're abstract shorts by a director whose only ever made abstract short films.  Like, Eve is about a mannequin-like woman who goes through some symbolic changes that serve as a metaphor for Creationism, I guess?  Adam shows up, too.  Both shorts are tough to sit through because there's no dialogue or story, just visuals and sound effects.  There are probably a few fans of this guy's work, though, who have zero interest in Pontypool but who are happy to pick this up just to get his rare short films.  So okay, I guess it's better to have them than not.

And that's about it for what the two discs share.  They also both have two trailers for the film.  One little exclusive the blu-ray has is the stills gallery from the radio play available separately, so you can look through it without sitting through the hour long play, which was a good idea.  But the IFC has an exclusive, too: a third short film called The Death of Chet Baker.  This isn't even remotely horror-themed, but unlike the other two shorts, actually does connect to Pontypool at least in that it also stars Stephen McHattie.  He plays real life musician Chet Baker, who I guess died under somewhat mysterious circumstances... he either fell out of a window, or jumped, or was pushed.  So this film dramatizes each possibility and, uh... I guess we're supposed to choose which one feels the most plausible?  It's just a short little 6 minute thing, but it's well made and a lot more interesting than the other two shorts.  But I certainly don't mind not having it on my blu.
So, this movie isn't for everybody.  But it's good, so hopefully it's for some of you.  And if it is, I heartily recommend importing the UK blu.  None of the extras for this film are that great, but all the most important stuff is carried over anyway.  It looks better in HD.  IFC really dropped the ball not getting this out on blu (a year or two later, we probably would've had this from Scream Factory), but there's no reason for us to suffer their mistake thanks to Kaleidoscope.

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