The day after I saw Pulse someone came up to me and announced he’d just received bad news, and though he never told me what the news was, he complained that it hadn’t been delivered in person or even by a call. Instead it had come to him in the form of a coldly impersonal text message on his cell phone. Technology as impersonal and isolating is exactly the kind of thing that’s at the heart of Jim Sonzero’s Pulse, a flawed horror film with something on its mind besides simple thrills.
While the movie is almost too relentless in its over-the-top determination to be horrific, it’s also a surprisingly pointed critique of the perils of our communication-obsessed society. The film is a remake of a 2001 Japanese horror picture by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) called Kairo, which received a limited art house release under the title Pulse and has become something of a cult movie on DVD. Originally slated to be directed by Wes Craven, who co-wrote the remake with Ray Wright, the film was ultimately helmed by newcomer Jim Sonzero.
Sonzero did a solid enough job, but this is a story that might have benefited from Craven’s talents. A wildly uneven filmmaker, Craven excels at horror films with strong subtexts. His best films are more than simple shockers. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) contained more than razor-taloned Freddy Krueger in its tale of evil unleashed by vigilantism. The People Under the Stairs (1991) was ultimately an indictment of Reagan, Bush (the first one) and Desert Storm far more than it was a creepy thriller about an incestuous brother and sister with a covey of kidnapped children in the basement of their mortuary home. Pulse is in the same category of horror-plus — only not quite. Sonzero’s direction tries too hard and works too much on the “throw in the kitchen sink” mind-set to be taken quite seriously. And worse, the kitchen sink always seems to belong to somebody else.
Comparisons to Kurosawa’s original are inevitable — especially by those suffering from a cultural inferiority complex that works on the belief that anything with subtitles is automatically superior — and there’s no denying that the Kurosawa film is a less obvious, more poetic work. It’s also a clunky work that’s more concerned with mood than dramatic coherence. Taken together, the two films are pretty much a wash quality-wise. Kurosawa’s is more personal and quirky; plus, he gets points for originating the idea of the dead returning via the Internet. Sonzero’s film is more of a commercial thriller — rather absurdly aimed at a teenage fan base (hence the PG-13 rating) that isn’t likely to be impressed by a cerebral theme that suggests that the technology at the core of their experience is actually isolating them from each other and will ultimately destroy them.
What’s surprising about the U.S. version is that it actually ups the ante in terms of theme, quickly establishing all its main characters as slaves to cell phones, text messaging, e-mails, Internet chatting, answering machines, voice mail etc., and just as quickly establishing that these devices have become the tools of isolation as far as actual human interaction is concerned. One of Mattie Webber’s (Kristen Bell, TV’s Veronica Mars) first complaints about her relations with her boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker, The Deep End), is that their romance has come down to a few text messages a week. Also implicit in the film’s early scenes is the intrusion factor of this technology — actual interactions constantly interrupted by cell phone calls and messages, the inability of the characters ever to relax because they’re always “on call” as communication junkies. These are the aspects of Pulse that make it far more interesting — and disturbing — than an average horror film.
The genre, of course, demands something more, and here the film sometimes succeeds, while at other times topples over into the unintentionally funny. Sonzero has chosen to shoot the entire film in an ugly greenish color that makes it look like the entire world is lit by fluorescent lights. He’s also gone to town on the depressive set design. It’s one thing that Josh’s apartment has the Bad Housekeeping Serial Killer Seal of Approval. After all, when we first see it, he’s in a state of advanced mental decay. However, all the other male characters evidence the same kind of housekeeping skills — even the less technology-obsessed hero, Dexter McCarthy (Ian Somerhalder, The Rules of Attraction). Atmospheric? Possibly. And possibly too reminiscent of FeardotCom (2002). It’s also pointlessly depressing and robs the film of any balance. Having Pulse‘s world taken over by the dead doesn’t seem all that great a loss.
I suspect the movie’s atmospheric overkill is merely part and parcel of the “throw in the kitchen sink” philosophy behind the approach to Pulse. Not only are they borrowing from dozens of other horror films, but Sonzero has a soundtrack that never lets up (and cribs shamelessly from Ken Russell’s 1980 horror film Altered States, which Pulse also evokes in its big basement-scene set piece). The end result is such overkill that it induces titters when it oughtn’t.
On occasion — the image of a character vanishing into a black stain on a wall, Mattie submerged in literally thousands of groping arms, the images of the world laid waste — the film actually touches on the mythic. Even at its worst, it’s entertaining, but the missed opportunity of the truly great horror film it might have been gnaws at you. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi terror, disturbing images, language, sensuality and thematic material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke