Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Violent Images
(Japanese with English subtitles)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Kumiko Aso, Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki Kato, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo & Shinji Takeda
Before I get into this review, it’s worth noting that I know I’m in the minority on this one. Asian horror films seem to be hit or miss for me. Sometimes, they’re super scary (SHUTTER), haunting (AUDITION), and disturbing (THREE EXTREMES). Other times, they’re tedious (RINGU, there I said it), derivative (CINDERELLA), and dull (THE EYE). I’d heard nothing but endless praise for 2001’s PULSE, which hit US shores four years after its Japanese release and a year before 2006’s piss-poor remake (which is among the very worst horror films that I’ve ever seen). Even though I wasn’t a fan of its US remake, I decided that I would give the original (better) version of this story a shot. Sadly, I find myself disappointed by the first PULSE too. It’s not nearly as bad as its horrible Americanized version, but it remains a dull, slow, and borderline incoherent mess of a ghost story.
After her friend commits suicide, Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso) begins to notice bizarre things around her. The deceased friend’s distorted face is reflected on a computer screen, a human-sized black stain seems oddly menacing, and gloomy specters seem to be using the internet to terrorize the world of the living. Meanwhile, college student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) has just hooked his computer up to the worldwide web and discovers that it’s displaying some really disturbing images. Either these images are the jokes of a really sick hacker…or all technology seems to be being invaded by spooky ghosts. Seeing as this is a horror movie, you can likely guess which one it is.
I understand that PULSE is terrifying for a lot of people and this film has garnered loads upon loads of praise from both critics and horror fans alike. However, this movie didn’t do much for me and I’ll attempt to put my thoughts into words that explain my reasoning. To be clear, there are effectives moments in PULSE. The sound design of the ghosts and occasionally eerie music can be unnerving. There are also a handful of scary scenes, ala a slowly approaching ghost who corners a guy under a couch or a stain that suddenly turns into a deceased friend. However, these creepy bits are few and far between.
The first thing that really throws me off about PULSE is its deliberately glacial pacing. I can dig on slow-burn horror, but the build-up has to be worth the pay-off or compelling enough to stand on its own. Neither of those things can be said about PULSE’s tedious storytelling. Maybe my view is slightly tainted because I already kind of knew what was coming thanks to the shitty American remake that I saw as a teenager, but I was frequently bored throughout this sluggish two-hour viewing experience. The characters aren’t exactly worth rooting for either, as I found them all to be blander than bland.
Another thing that’s distractingly bad is that PULSE’s technology, which is a major part of its threadbare plot, has aged horribly and the resulting “terrifying” technological proceedings are more laughable than frightening. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes the time to show characters explaining how the internet works to each other, setting up old-school computers, and explaining theories about how the dead might corrupt technology. That last idea was pretty much perfected in the 2002 remake of THE RING and not so much in the 1998 mediocre original RINGU), but this ghost story feels very weak in its actual plot.
Speaking of ghosts, I want to get into spoiler territory, so skip to the final paragraph if you don’t want anything revealed. The motivation behind PULSE’s evil spirits and their ultimate end goal is kind of laughable and more depressing than scary. These ghosts basically drain a person’s will to live by either being around them or telling them how depressing it is to be dead. The victims of these ghosts either kill themselves or disintegrate into ash (hence the black stains everywhere), and red duct tape keeps them out for some inexplicable reason (that was explained just as well here as it was in the awful remake, which is to say not at all). The end result is an apocalyptic ghost story that sounds like it could be terrifying in theory, but is mostly just dull and more depressing than it is disturbing.
PULSE might wind up doing something for you, like RINGU and THE EYE have also satisfied other film buffs and horror fans. However, this movie bored me to tears more than it scared me and left me feeling all-around cold. Some might argue that feeling drained was the entire point of this film, but I’d counter with most emotionally draining viewing experiences usually leave you thinking about the film long after it’s over. PULSE didn’t do that in a positive way for me. Instead of pondering the futility of life, the potential of how the internet is killing us all through socially awkward separation, and the possibility of the dead invading technology, I was instead lamenting the two hours that I just wasted on an overrated, subpar ghost story with a few cool ideas and nothing more.