Just as the restraints placed on Hollywood during World War II yielded the innovative era of film noir, Canada’s restrictions have motivated filmmakers to explore subversive and taboo topics through the lens of horror. Canada is the birthplace of many inventive and often low budget horror films, including my personal favorite, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. While Cronenberg is perhaps the most well known Canadian auteur, America’s northern neighbors have produced a long history of horror films, many of which have managed to evade the common pitfalls of low budget films and gone on to become cult gems.
Two of those films, Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) and Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008) are vastly different, but have interesting elements in common. With their similarly low budgets, both focus on a small group of people grappling with an unprecedented dilemma entirely in a singular location. Despite their loss of control, both groups attempt to regain it by piecing together the puzzle and subverting it.
In Cube, a group of strangers wake up in a giant cube with no memory of how they got there or why they were taken. They quickly decide to stay together and find a way out, but personalities clash and tensions rise as the helpless, trapped feeling ignites a breakdown in their humanity.
Similarly, Pontypool attempts a deconstruction of language in order to save the humanity of residents of a small Ontario town in the wake of a zombie-like outbreak. Former big-city-turned-small-town-shock-jock Grant Mazzy follows his Ace in the Hole story while he and his producer Sydney are stuck inside their tiny radio station. Armed only with their platform and some quick thinking, they try to stop the spread of the virus.
A Loss Of Control
A lack of control is clearly present across both narratives. Everything immediately feels out of control in Cube, as the prisoners (interestingly named after real-world prisons) are forced to work with strangers in order to escape. As they move from cube to cube — identical save their color and flavor of deadly booby trap — the days wear on without food or water and tensions begin to rise. No matter how much progress they seem to make, things continue to fall apart.
In Pontypool, tech guru Laurel-Ann tries to corroborate mob rumors, but the technology is consistently unreliable. Mazzy, eager to escape the doldrums of small town reporting, is ready to dive in, but Sydney demands they wait for more facts. Dr. Mendez (a local dentist discovered to be at the epicenter of the outbreak) ultimately confirms the truth of the outbreak. Unfortunately, Laurel-Ann still gets infected and they watch helplessly as she — an Afghanistan veteran who would’ve easily survived any other zombie film — succumbs to the virus.
Similar to other outbreak narratives, the military’s presence in Pontypool is a destabilizing one, killing frightened people as the virus continues to literally tear families apart. And as the group eventually realizes in Cube, their hellish maze was most definitely commissioned by the government in some capacity — built by disparate entities without any knowledge of the other’s work. The chaotic feeling persists even once the credits roll as we are left unsure of what happens next, leaving endless possibilities.
Piecing Together The Pattern
After escape artist Rennes misjudges a cube’s safety and perishes, Leaven discovers a mathematic pattern in the numbers that separate the cubes, each one indicating the presence of a trap. So Leaven does the mental heavy lifting while Dr. Holloway uses her bedside manner skills as a doctor to keep Kazan calm, and simultaneously fling barbs at police officer Quentin’s increasingly nasty comments, which refer to Kazan as dead weight.
Quietly enduring Quentin’s hostile behavior for most of the running time, Worth eventually breaks down, admitting his involvement on the project that built the cube’s impenetrable outer shell. Yet even with hope seemingly lost, Leaven ultimately figures out the internal pattern of the gigantic cubic structure and she begins to lead them to the exit.
While in Pontypool, Mazzy and Sydney must piece together various outside sources in order to figure out the pattern of the zombie virus. No one knows much until they are on the air with Ken and he goes through a transformation himself. Then they finally realize it is transmitted through something highly unusual: language.
After receiving a warning transmission in French — advising against using terms of endearment, baby talk, rhetorical discourse and ultimately translating the message itself — Dr. Mendez works out, aloud and in German, that only certain English words are infected (a.k.a. “sound bites”) and transmitted when the new host comprehends and internalizes the meaning of the word. Unfortunately for those poor souls like Laurel-Ann, when the infected cannot pass on the virus, the host dies.
When Sydney is suddenly infected by the word “kill,” Mazzy frantically tries to save her by breaking down the word as best he can to distort her understanding of its meaning, thereby disinfecting it. His musing on the nature of language resonates: “How do you make a word you know sound strange?” He needs to convince her that “kill” means something else, finally landing on “kiss.” As he repeats “kill means kiss,” it somehow begins to work until the grip of the virus subsides and Sydney calms down.
Yet even after saving Sydney, Mazzy is still struck with the moral dilemma he introduced at the top of his show that morning: “Folks, when do you call 911?” Armed with new knowledge on how to counteract the effects of the virus, he decides his job is more important than ever. Though talking over the air may be risky, he is going to take that chance if he can stop the spread of the virus.
In Cube, as the days wear on and their energy drains, their individual personalities devolve into their respective id personas. Before his untimely demise, Rennes tries to impart some advice on the group: “No more talking. No more guessing. You gotta save yourselves from yourselves.”
But without outside stimuli, no food or water and an intense desire to survive, the individuals do not heed his advice.
Things truly reach the breaking point when Quentin secretly murders Holloway, then lies to the group about it. They immediately sense something is wrong and Quentin snaps. As they make a mad dash to the exit, with Kazan crunching numbers the whole way (turns out he was a supercomputer all along), Quentin follows in hot pursuit, eventually catching up and murdering Leaven. When it becomes clear he is not going to make it, Worth sacrifices himself so Kazan can escape.
And yet even when it seems like the storm has ended, the audience is still left with plenty of questions. Director Natali explains:
“For me, personally, I like...to walk away from the movie not a hundred percent sure entirely what's transpired. I want to be left with the responsibility of interpreting a film myself, and hopefully all my films offer you that opportunity. They all end with a question, they're all somewhat open- ended.”
As Kazan steps into the bright light, we have no way of knowing what he is walking into — will he be rewarded for surviving? Will he be met with a hail of bullets? Or is he walking into something so much worse? And as Mazzy and Sydney desperately try to broadcast to Pontypool’s residents how to subvert the virus, a countdown is heard overhead, cutting to black the moment it reaches number one. Was the town eliminated via a blast a la The Crazies? Did the message reach anyone? And will anyone truly ever know what happened?