Directed by: Jim Sonzero
Starring: Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Rick Gonzalez, Jonathan Tucker,
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi terror, disturbing images, language, sensuality and thematic material.
Parental Notes: This is probably too spooky a film for youngsters, but teens and mature preteens will likely get a kick out of it if they like scary movies.
There’s been quite a spate of Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films in recent years, and “Pulse” is the latest in the string. There are a number of stylistic and plot differences between the two films, but the new “Pulse” is a fairly decent horror movie, and those who like the fashion of altering Japanese storylines to suit American sensibilities will likely enjoy it.
The Japanese film “Kairo” (translated for English-language release as “The Circuit” or “Pulse”), was written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and released in 2001. It is a thoroughly atmospheric film with no violence or sex, and very few “boo!” moments to make you jump in your seat. Rather than gore or startlingness it offers an increasing sense of dread.
The film follows a group of coworkers and friends who investigate when one of the group kills himself. They discover a website their friend visited which asks if they want to meat a ghost, and shows eerie footage of people alone in their rooms. Meanwhile, an economics student overcomes his dislike of computers enough to get online — only to be led to the same website. He investigates, with the help of a female computer science student.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that ghosts are entering the realm of the living and somehow causing people to lose their will to live. Humans who encounter ghosts either kill themselves or gradually fade away into nothingness, leaving only a dark smear where they were sitting. However, the faded humans somehow are still there, enough so that they can beg for help in eerie whispers. Some humans begin to seal rooms off with red construction tape, although the purpose of this is never thoroughly explained.
“Kairo” is a fascinating film which leaves a great deal up to the viewer; very little is explained definitively, and a quick look around online will find a number of message boards with people discussing the meaning of various bits of symbolism from it. “Pulse,” on the other hand, explains a great deal which is at once a benefit and a problem.
In “Pulse,” the group of people investigating their friend’s suicide are students at a university. The heroine, Mattie (Kristen Bell, TV’s “Veronica Mars”), is a psychology student whose boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker, “Hostage”) is the initial suicide. As she and her friends investigate they discover that the ghostly creatures are spreading via wireless tools like cellphones and computers. Anything that can receive a wireless computer signal can be a portal for them. They discover Josh was working on a computer virus to stop them, and they must find a way to implement it.
The ghostly beings’ abilities and how the red tape affects them are both explained, but not with much clarity (and in one notable occasion the heroine, knowing those abilities, acts with such utter stupidity that one has to wonder about her ability to handle a psych degree). What exactly the beings are isn’t properly explained, nor is their nature: at one point they are described as stealing the will to live from living humans because they lack it themselves, but then later they are described as having a will to live of their own. Furthermore, one of their victims fades away while screaming that he doesn’t want to die — that sounds like the will to live to me.
For this reviewer, no explanation is better than an unclear one, and in that respect “Kairo” is superior to “Pulse.” The other differences are largely those where your personal taste will dictate which you prefer. “Kairo” is atmospheric and eerie rather than actively frightening, while “Pulse” has plenty of scenes with people being attacked by the ghostly beings and fighting with them. “Kairo” has a very unclear ending, while “Pulse” ends with a voice over explaining things. Both films hold the theme of the ability our communications technology has to isolate us firmly in the forefront, but “Kairo” does so a bit more subtly than “Pulse.”
Taken on its own merits, “Pulse” is a fairly decent PG-13 horror movie. It isn’t great, but it isn’t awful. If you like the idea of the story but prefer a more atmospheric film with less explanation or conclusion, find “Kairo.” It’s out on DVD in the US and readily available via Netflix.