Josh (Jonathan Tucker) is a young student and computer hacker who's stumbled onto something that he doesn't understand but which terrifies him. He retreats into his small apartment and shuts out the light outside, communicating only by his computer when he's not too afraid to keep it turned towards the wall. His girlfried, Mattie (Kristen Bell), is concerned at not hearing from him but for the odd email and the occasional text message. But what makes her afraid is not only the breaking down of her relationship with Josh but the number of missing persons posters going up about town and how the university campus is looking ever more empty. Amongst rumours of disappearances, Mattie calls round to see Josh but finds him living in a state of squalor, not only with cockroaches scuttling about the table, but with a near-dead cat mewling in a cupboard. Josh, when he creeps out of the darkness, seems dazed by something, looking pale and listless. Following him into his bedroom, she's shocked at hearing the clatter of furniture and Josh hanging from the ceiling in his room. But ghostly figures start to haunt her and and when she next logs onto a computer, it asks her, "Would you like to meet ghosts?" There, inside the computer, amongst many others captured by webcam, is Josh, his suicide playing constantly...
Perhaps it's that we are more media aware, certainly in terms of what is involved in the making of a film but I do wonder if, even in the years after we stopped staring at water for entertainment, we didn't point at the jackass in white makeup in the theatre and be less than terrified at the grotesque shapes he was getting himself into. Only the faintest of hearts must have swooned at seeing their local troupe of actors footling about on the stage dressed as ghosties. If, that is, putting on a black wig, white dress and a lot of pale makeup can constitute being dressed at all.
That is, contrary to the critical wave that has accompanied it, my problem with the J-Horror scene, which might well have some cultural resonance at home with Ringu, Kairo, Dark Water and Ju-on: The Grudge but which, to my western eyes, do not look much more than a drip of miserable girls dressed as witches who then judder and skulk about in the corners of rooms. Ringu has its moments where one expects the worst - the sense of foreboding is much more potent than the actualité of the horror - but Sadako's stuttering movements aren't quite as terrifying as the film's reputation would have you believe. And then there's the staples of these horrors...little girls, horrible old women and bald men. Heaven help some ordinary little couple of a bald man and a haggard but kindly woman who decide to, after the misfortune of not having children of their own, decide to adopt a couple of little girls with a liking for nursery rhymes and red dresses. Were this the seventeen-hundreds, they'd doubtless be burned as being in league with the devil.
Pulse comes with all of this writ large, spinning a tale of the interference of the dead amongst the living, who somehow find a path from the afterlife via Internet connections, mobile phones and PDAs. Almost every modern convenience in fact but red Scotch packing tape. When the dead appear, they are a mix of miserable-looking teenagers, bare-chested twin boys and entirely bald men, all of whom peek over bedclothes, through keyholes and between cracks in the walls, lurching towards our heroes with pronounced digital glitches as though they were being played of a scratched source. Like almost all horror, which feels compelled to have a message, there is something of a warning in here about the dangers of modern life and the technologies on which we depend. Read these spectres as being proof of how vulnerable these things are to viruses and the like - and there is mention of these ghosts being as a result of a virus in an ultra-wideband wireless telecommunications network - and Pulse becomes a warning about the thin line that exists between a technological order and chaos when, in a very literal sense, the ghost in the machine comes unbound.
At its most effective, there is a chilling tone to Pulse that is as appealing as the one in Ringu and Dark Water before the unveiling of their ghosts, being a tone that implies something is absent from our lives. This is not, however, due to the actual horrors in the script but by the stark use of blues and greys in the film and by the dreary concrete tower blocks that line the Romanian skyline. This loneliness is very much due to the deserted inner-city streets and the sense that life goes on behind the doors of these buildings. Before very much time passes, there's a palpable and enjoyable feeling of isolation in Pulse. But, again, this becomes the problem with the film, being that the setup of the story is a lot more interesting than any of the moments of horror that eventually come. Pulse is, at its best, a brother-in-fog to the first half-hour of Silent Hill, in which there is clearly something awful haunting the city but which is, at first, beyond being seen by those within it. Like that film, the actual horror isn't anything of the sort, merely a lot of supernatural nonsense creeping out of the shadows, only this time it stutters on computer monitors, on Motorola RAZR phones and, in the film's near-finale, around a bank of routers.
It might be a matter of culture but the notion that there is any sense of horror to be taken from a nation's callow youth being done for by their instant messaging, palmtops and mobile phones is wholly mistaken. A Tokyo emptied of its youth might well terrify a country that contends with suicide cults but this more westernised telling of the same tale left this viewer looking at it with a glimmer of hope, one in which pimply teenagers vanish into the electronic ether never to be heard from again. Pulse does try to drag this little concern into the wider world with televised warnings to stay away from technology - as sure as day follows night, these soon fall to the tech-spectres as much as did the Internet - the bringing down of an airplane and Mattie stumbling upon three or four survivors but with one exception, a quite shocking car accident, these are dealt with halfheartedly and didn't rouse much of a reaction from this audience. A slight opening of the eyes perhaps but not a great deal more. Granted, I might well be the wrong audience but even the most ardent J-Horror fan might well struggle to rouse themselves for this western remake of Kairo. That I followed this film by logging onto my email says a little about any lasting impact this film might have.
Whatever other merits it has, or has not, Pulse sounds wonderful. The default English DD5.1 audio track is an all-encompassing one that makes clear use of the rear channels and subwoofer to great effect, wrapping the viewer in the scratching of digital glitches, a huge amount of white noise and a deep, deep rumble that's much more impressive than any of the spooky goings-on. It is a different film with the subwoofer switched on and the volume turned up and a better one at that...but when a film is trawling the arse of the cheaper end of Hollywood as much as this one is, it desperately needs the help of a good soundtrack.
The producers of this DVD also do a fine job with the picture, the quality of which is only let down by the visual effects. It's worth mentioning the standard of these CG efforts, the very lowest of which is a spirit breaking free from the telephone lines and floating around in the bath between the legs of Kristen Bell, which doesn't sound at all bad but has the look of photo-quality colour printing sitting underneath the bubbles in the water. The actual transfer is good, though, with a certain sharpness to the picture and a handsome handling of not only the bleak colours in the film but the bright splashes of red. Not, you'll understand, that this 15-rated cut features much blood - there is also a PG-13-rated fullscreen cut available on Region 1 - but the DVD does a very decent job with this tame horror nonetheless.
Commentaries: There are two on the disc, one featuring director Jim Sonzero and Makeup Effects Designer Gary Tunicliffe and ther other Producers Mike Leahy and Joel Soisson, VFX Supervisor Kevin O'Neill, Editor Kirk Morri, Line Producer Ron Vecchiarelli and actor Samm Levine. There's little, though, to separate them. The first is probably the more technically interesting of the two with Sonzero on fine form as regards the making of the film, its being filmed in Romania and where scenes and dialogue in his film were lifted almost like-for-like from the Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The second track is the more irreverent of the two with the behind-the-scenes crowd giving Samm Levine short shrift over his performance and pausing their chatter during Kristen Bell's scene in the bath.
Deleted Scenes (12m19s): Giving the impression that everything of note did make it into the film, these scenes contain little that's important to the plot. Indeed, they suggest, what with the various wanderings of the actors around empty buildings, that the second unit might well have pulled them together on a weekend not necessarily for the film but for this DVD release.
Creating The Fear (7m02s): This is subtitled Making Pulse and at only a little over seven minutes, suggests that it will either pass over much of the production or that there is almost nothing to say. As it is, this is a piece that
The Visual Effects of Pulse (5m58s): ...which are not, if one is being honest, of a particularly high standard. The first image that the makers use to demonstrate the effects of Pulse is of a plane flying overhead with its engines on fire and whilst it's more convincing than someone setting a paper plane alight and dangling it in front of the television, it's not a great deal more so. Much better, though, is when the makers create a look not dissimilar to the one that opens Silent Hill with a grey, foggy landscape and, in this feature, describe how they achieve it via CG.
Pulse and the Paranormal (4m23s): Paranormal investigator John Zaffis and Ghost Hunters' Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson are interviewed for this feature, sympathetically trying to link the events of Pulse to the natural world. Or the supernatural world. The crux of this seems to be that the living are occasionally contacted by the dead, either hearing voices or white noise through the telephone. And yet no one appears to mention the possibility of these being crank calls, perverts or autodiallers failing to connect the call to an operator. As one who has worked in telecommunications, the inner workings of a telephone network is anything but straightforward, suggesting that any number of recently-dead dimwits who were troubled in life by the setting of a video, don't, frankly, stand much of a chance of having their spirit emerge through a PSTN.
Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (2m24s).
Reading the allmovie.com review of Kairo, the J-Horror film on which Pulse is based, it talks of Tokyo becoming a city of lost souls bracing itself for impending doom. There is never that same feeling in Pulse, which doesn't have that same sense of specific cultural fear or, indeed, any actual feeling of horror. That's the biggest letdown in this film, which begins promisingly but ends with CG ghosts wandering about a basement and punching out the glass in a pickup. Not, you'll understand, did one hope to have a better ending than that but that's a particularly low moment in a film that seems to be carried amongst a lot of the same. What ideas it has last as long as did Josh. Which, given his very brief time in the film, leaves them not lasting for very long at all.