Pontypool can generally be considered to be atypical for a horror film. It does not stand out in terms of its use of the usual tropes of horror, yet it is unique in other dimensions of the genre. It may be described as a zombie movie and if evaluated as such, it may seem to be nothing special. It lacks the action or the graphic zombie portrayals that brings out the “wow factor” in zombie apocalypse films. However, it is also incorrect to say that Pontypool is a bad film.
Pontypool can be considered as paracinema. In contrast to “popular culture” horror films, it cannot be clearly classified within the horror genre. It contains elements that resemble a science fiction film (as do most zombie films). For instance, the idea of the zombie virus is a result of playing around with scientific ideas to come up with a fantastic concept or possibility that would be a point of interest in literature. This idea used not just in this film but also in other zombie apocalypse literature like Resident Evil, World War Z, and 28 Days Later. However, what separates Pontypool is that lack of action/adventure elements in those other zombie movies. It focuses on development: how the specific zombie virus behaves and propagates, how the dystopic setting is formed, and how the virus can be cured.
Borrowing from Joan Hawkins’ idea, Pontypool (as paracinema) can be appreciated using approaches that are different from what are commonly used for pop culture horror films. It cannot be assessed solely by the zombie’s characteristics (i.e. what made it, what does it look like, etc.). The high points of the film are not in the zombie characters, rather I think that what the film was trying to sell the most is the underlying psychological or philosophical nature of what makes the zombie. I find it interesting that the nature of the monster virus is that it infects English words. [Although I cringe at it too because even for science fiction, that just shows poor conception using the science behind virus. Viruses need a host cell for survival. Using something intangible like words of a specific language just does not make sense, if we are referring to viruses.] In particular, they used words with meanings that the victim is so fixated upon. It is interesting to me because every learned concept (expressed in words) resembles trauma in the brain. The more “traumatic” the concept is, the more we can retain it. If the infected word holds the most “traumatic” concept, the easier the virus can affect the brain. Another way of looking at it is the vilification of the English language, which could be more interesting if translated in the Philippine setting because some Filipinos claim that English is now in the same league as Filipino in terms of being the national language. It would be scary if you did not have a second language, or if you did not choose to learn your local language; because speaking up will be a risk.
Another aspect of the movie that I appreciated was the acting. Most of the film was shot in only one setting. The tendency for films shot in only one set is that they would have to rely on the quality camera-work, sound effects, or the acting; otherwise, it would will not be as dynamic or it will be boring. Most horror movies would rely on the weather of the set or the time of the day or night in order to evoke the feeling of dread or impending doom. In contrast, Pontypool was set mostly indoors which was slightly gray. It would not actually matter if it was day or night then or if it was sunny or rainy. The built up and release of tension mostly by the atmosphere between the actors and the way that they express that “something is happening” without actually showing what was happening for most of the film. Other elements were also at work (like sounds, lighting, etc.), but I feel like the acting was really splendid. I think the one-set plot kind of worked with the concept, because the fact that the characters are just talking for most of the story highlights how scary it actually is to find out that they were actually at a very high risk of being infected that whole time.
Personally, I was only slightly scared by Pontypool but it served as a good food-for-thought horror movie. It certainly is not your typical horror film. But the fact that it was unconventional does not take away from its identity nor its quality as a horror film.
Joan Hawkins, “Sleaze Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002).