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Actor McHattie delivers the goods in zombie flick

By Stephen Farber

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The new Canadian thriller "Pontypool" owes a debt to a long line of horror movies, from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Night of the Living Dead" and more recent chillers "28 Days Later" and "The Mist".

A strange virus is turning the residents of Pontypool, Ontario, into flesh-eating zombies, and a few desperate survivors are fighting to stave off the mutant invasion. While this latest variation on the theme is efficient enough to attract a cult audience, the IFC Films release, which opened Friday (May 29), is not going to match the box-office prowess of its predecessors.

The story begins when a shock jock, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), reports to his new job at a radio station in the boonies. As he starts his morning show, Grant and the producers begin hearing reports of unruly mobs in town, and soon the ghouls are pounding at the doors and windows of the station. (The entire story takes place in that single setting over the course of a single day.) Grant tries to discover what's causing the outbreak of hysteria and cannibalism. Is it the kind of medical or environmental catastrophe that we've seen in other zombie movies? Writer Tony Burgess has come up with a novel solution to the mystery, which is bizarre rather than frightening.

The confined setting has worked in other horror movies, but director Bruce McDonald doesn't succeed in creating a mood of mounting terror. This low-budget picture is a little too claustrophobic, and it grows tedious. The ominous, overbearing music score tries but fails to jack up the tension.

On the plus side, there are a few effective jolts, and the script has flashes of macabre wit that McHattie relishes. His character is well drawn, and his commanding performance is the best reason to consider seeing the movie. McHattie has had a long career playing heroes as well as heavies, and he brings all his experience to the project. He conveys the world-weariness of a man at the end of his rope, and he knows when to underplay and when to pull out the stops. It's a juicy, delicious performance.

Other performances vary in quality. Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly, as the two women at the radio station, provide convincing counterpoint, but Hrant Alianak as the Germanic doctor who might have started the epidemic is way too histrionic. Technical credits are serviceable.

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