Review: Pulse (Kairo) (2001)
Horror Movie Mini-Review by Zeus | 2014-04-09
The recent golden age of Japanese horror began with the excellent US remake of The Ring and ended with the infamous remake of Pulse. Sadly, when the original Japanese version was released in the states, it was dismissed as yet another movie about scary girls with long black hair. And that's a shame, because this movie doesn't leap out from the dark and go for the throat, it's happy just bumming you out.
The lead characters are Michi (Kumiko Aso), a schoolgirl whose circle of friends begins to shrink by way of mysterious suicide, and Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), Japan's equivilant of a stoner, minus the pot. When Kawashima signs his new Win95 PC into the Internet, it automatically loads a live webcam of the living dead. Understandably freaked out, he seeks the help of Harue, a pleasant computer science major. And it's a good thing, too, because he doesn't even know how to bookmark a website.
Ghost stories tend to be a basic tales of cause (terrible event) and effect (vengeful spirit). Not so with Pulse. Here there's an underlying mythos of staggering complexity. It starts simple enough: There's a website that asks if you'd like to see ghosts before displaying a creepy webcam feed of faceless people slumped over in dark, unsettling rooms. Those unfortunate enough to see the video are stricken with depression and eventually kill themselves, or just slump against a wall and fade away, leaving only a human shaped stain. And sometimes, they reappear through stain, as if it were a portal. And indeed, there is a portal, as the whole mess started (one random Graduate Student tells us) when the afterlife reached its maximum occupancy, and ghosts migrated to our world. They originally appear in dark rooms, which people (for some reason) seal up with red tape, and then somehow somehow got into the internet. The ghosts then wait in their "Forbidden Rooms" until someone foolishly enters. But they can't kill us, because each death would create another ghost, adding to the overpopulated afterlife. Instead, they'd rather trap us forever in a prison of loneliness. What does that mean? Hell if I know. Apparently, there's a third dimension beyond life or death, one of pure loneliness. It's probably populated by the two or three people who can tell me exactly what this movie is about.
Almost as unique as the baffling backstory is the movie's refusal to resort to jump scares. Pulse is a case study in how to film horror without resorting to loud noises on the soundtrack to startle the audience. Does it pay off? I'd say yes. While the movie seems more interested in depression than abject terror, at those times it does want to scare you, it does so without the benefit of goofy shock notes. What at first appears to be a shadow reveals itself to be a ghost, which slowly makes its way toward you, peering into your very soul. The webcam feed is simple, compared to the The Ring's disturbing excess, and yet it's almost as disturbing to see shadowy figures slowly navigating dimly lit rooms. The ghosts just look like people, for the most part. The lack of crazy special effects makes them feel more solid than the usual spook, but no less unsettling. And it fits with the story. These ghosts aren't here to kill you, they're here to replace you.
Pulse is a post-apocalyptic ghost story, a beast so rare the only other one I can think of is arguably Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. The scope is ambitious, the lack of jump scares admirable, and the premise veers off into uncharted lands. But while the movie is loaded with social commentery about technology and isolation, it has little in the way of characters and plot. The best developed character is the computer-illiterate Kawashima, who suddenly develops a bad case of Stupid Protagonist Syndrome. In a movie where so much random scary stuff can happen, it's really not necessary to turn the lead character into an idiot. (I haven't seen a reason to split up so forced since a character in Pinata: Survival Island said, you guys go ahead, I've got a rock in my shoe.) Everyone else is bland or terminally depressed, making you really feel the two hour running length. Still, despite these flaws, Pulse has a lot going for it, especially for those interested in the craft of making horror films. (3/5 stars)