Pulse Blu-ray Review
Some will no doubt remember those hard-hitting public information films aimed at children that played in British schools and on daytime TV during the 1970s and 80s. One such campaign vividly showed the perils of electricity whilst playing outside, with vignettes including a youngster carelessly flying his kite into a pylon, or another accidentally touching an overhead cable with a fishing rod and - most haunting of all – a sequence that showed young Jimmy breaking into a substation to retrieve his Frisbee – only to slip and receive a fatal 66,000 volt shock. As an animated owl warned at the end, “Electricity is a faithful servant, but a dangerous master!”
Not that any children that appear in the 1988 sci-fi horror Pulse are shown to be reckless, with the film instead incorporating a supernatural element to explore what might happen if electricity turned against us. What if that energy source that improves our lives and runs freely around most homes inexplicably developed a sinister intent, maliciously taking control of everyday appliances in the process?
The film centres on young pre-teen David (Joey Lawrence) whose parents are divorced, so finds himself reluctantly making the journey from Colorado to stay with his father Bill (Cliff De Young) and stepmother Ellen (Roxanne Hart) out in the suburbs of LA. From the get-go we are presented with a fractious father son relationship, where workaholic Bill does not fully understand David or has evidently given him enough time in the past.
David is uneasy about his new environment, this anxiety heightened by new technology that surrounds him – his mother has even warned that radiation from microwaves can make you sterile. Why does his father feel the worrying need for security bars that can automatically close across the windows to protect them? The irony here, to be revealed later, is that more danger lurks inside and not from anyone attempting to break into the property. The distraught boy is soon seen on the phone, begging his mother that he wants to return home.
The story - written by director Paul Golding - is a slow burner, with David gradually realising that something is very wrong in the street. He keeps noticing a strange blue spark emanating from the power line outside his window, then the television develops weird interference before burning out. He becomes intrigued as to why the house opposite is boarded up – apparently the previous resident went berserk and started smashing the place up before meeting an unfortunate demise. David needs to find out more and his cautious pint-sized neighbour Stevie (played by Lawrence’s younger brother Matthew, sporting an impressive bowl cut) seems to be the font of all knowledge. Even he cannot explain why the grass is mysteriously dying outside each property though, with local kids unfairly taking the rap.
None of the characters presented in the film are evil or deeply obnoxious, but there is a lack of understanding between them that prevails – often leading to fear and resentment. Figures of authority can never adequately explain any of the incidences that take place. A dangerous fractured gas pipe must simply be down to metal fatigue an engineer staunchly tries to explain, while a TV repairman informs them that a blown TV component must be due to a spike in the power, confessing he only follows whatever the manual says.
Then there’s creepy contractor Mr Holger, wonderfully played by Charles Tyner – who must surely win the acting honours. He is that stock character who understands exactly what is going down and can provide sound words of advice, except everybody mistakenly thinks he is crazy – except for David who hangs on every word. Old man Holger warns ominously about “the voice in the wires” and to “pull the plug”, because a malevolent entity is moving from one house to another through the power supply intent on destroying them.
Director Golding was a contemporary of George Lucas – the pair made Herbie (1966), a short 16mm black and white film while they were USC students. Over 20 years later, Pulse became his feature directing debut - and inexplicably his only film. A real shame, as Golding does an admirable job at building tension. A suspenseful sequence shows David frantically trying to escape from a garage - the motorised door refusing to budge - as noxious fumes fill the air, while another nail biting scene has terrified Ellen trying to break out of a shower cubicle as the water suddenly becomes scalding hot.
Potential hazards are omnipresent in the house: a circular saw roars to life in the basement as a bolt rattles precariously close to the rotating blade, ready to be fired out at anyone in the vicinity. Elsewhere a shard of glass slowly works loose from the putty of a window frame, ready to drop from above. Fans of the Final Destination films, or indeed Casualty, might try and second-guess what could possibly happen. What does become clear is that David and his father will need to pull together if they are to defeat this unseen lethal menace.
What makes Pulse really stand out is some excellent macro photography provided by Oxford Film Services – no CGI here folks. Circuit boards are blown up to super-sized proportions, showing all those resistors and capacitors in intricate detail and making them resemble a vast cityscape through which we are led to believe a living thing travels around. Globules of solder dissolve and merge together, seemingly developing a life of their own. Also worthy of a mention is the highly effective sound design, with every creak, rumble and crackle adding to an already unsettling atmosphere.
Not to be confused with a Japanese horror film from 2001 bearing the same title, or any subsequent films, Pulse was released straight to video in the UK by RCA/Columbia during 1989, which is when I first saw the film. In the US it was intended to have a wider theatrical release, with studios bosses at Columbia Pictures initially very enthusiastic. Alas, changes in management resulted in only a limited release around Texas and Oklahoma, before the film's inevitable appearance on video cassette.
Pulse makes its HD debut in the UK courtesy of Eureka! Classics (limited to 2,000 units), with a satisfyingly clean and detailed transfer presented in an OAR of 1.85:1. No signs of damage were detected. The 2.0 audio does a solid job within the constraints of a 1980s sound mix – the numerous sound FX still deliver quite a jolt and dialogue is distinct. Optional SDH are included.
The film retains an 18 rating in the UK, which has always puzzled me as it is not particularly graphic (it was rated PG-13 in the US).
It only had a lacklustre release on Blu-ray in the US, with a barebones 2017 disc from Mill Creek Entertainment. It is therefore great to see Eureka! going that extra mile and providing decent supplementary material. Extras include an insightful commentary track provided by film historian Amanda Reyes, which is well researched and her enthusiasm for this under-appreciated little gem really shines through. There is also a video essay provided by historian Lee Gambin, entitled Tuning In To Tech Horror (14 mins) – also well worth watching.
Pulse comes with a limited-edition O-card slipcase and Collector’s booklet (first print run only and not available for review).
Pulse is released on Blu-ray February 22.