Do you want to meet a ghost?
Remakes, remakes, remakes. This one is an American take on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 film, Pulse (Kairo), a subtle, slow-paced Japanese horror film that explores isolation and loneliness as much as it does supernatural freakiness. At one point, horror maestro Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) was set to direct the remake, but things changed during pre-production, as they so often do. Craven ended up with a co-writer credit, with relative newcomer Jim Sonzero (War of the Angels) taking over directing duties. So is it a frightening exploration of technology gone wrong, or is its pulse weak?
Mattie (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars), a college student, is dealing with the sudden and tragic death of someone close to her. In an attempt to understand what happened, she tracks down his missing laptop, now owned by a would-be hacker, Dexter (Ian Somerhalder, Lost). Not only are there strange and frightening images on the computer, but Mattie and her friends start seeing similar ghostlike images in the shadows, following them around. As time progresses, there are more and more suicides and unexplained deaths occurring wherever Mattie goes. She and Dexter know they have to do something, anything, to do put an end to this madness before it gets too far out of control.
So, the idea here is, “technology as horror.” During the first third of the movie we’re treated to a lot of story bits where characters continually talk on their cell phones, text message each other in class, and joke around about obsessively viewing Internet porn. This is supposed to set up a feeling of isolation; that people are only connecting with their machines, and not with another. It’s the thought of “Why talk to someone else when it’s so much easier to send an e-mail?” Unfortunately, the sense of isolation that these themes require us to see on screen just isn’t palatable enough. Mattie’s closeness with her friends comes across as genuine, as do her feelings for her recently dead boyfriend. Likewise, Dexter owns the laptop with the ghoulish images on it, but when Mattie tracks him down, he hasn’t yet had time to plug it in. I find it hard to believe that these characters are ones who would rather lose themselves on the Internet instead of reaching out to and communicating with their fellow human beings.
As the movie progresses, there are more and more creepy visuals, as whatever evil exists inside the computer starts to manifest itself in “our” reality with more frequency. This is where the movie’s big visual flourishes are, as ghostly spooks emerge from the shadow accompanied by jarring “static” effects. Yes, we have seen stuff like this before in The Ring and its kin, but it’s well captured here. These are the cool moments, the ones horror fans will want to see (not much in the way of gore, though), and they’re certainly the movie’s highlights. The few jump scares are telegraphed a little too far in advance, though. When a character starts walking slowly toward a dark corner, the score’s violins build in intensity as she gets closer and then—shriek!—something grotesque jumps out at her. Except we all knew something would jump out because we just had an extended build up with a slow walk and intense violins.
If nothing else, the movie is visually interesting in its use of color. Almost every scene is bathed in cold blues and grays, to the point where the whole thing almost monochromatic. I believe this is intentional, to reflect the cold, oppressive nature of technology as represented in the film. Although it’s never really explained why, we’re told that the color red can keep the restless spirits at bay, and so it’s successfully disconcerting when one or two scenes make the sudden jolt from all blue to all red.
There’s only a few fleeting references as to who these sinister spirits are, where they come from, and what they want. That’s okay—as a David Lynch fan, I have no problem with keeping things like this mysterious—but there are a few other logical holes here and there that might have some viewers frown in frustration. I’m not exactly what you’d call a computer guru—I only recently learned how to change my desktop wallpaper—but I’m guessing most of the computer talk here is bogus. Characters are “hackers,” there’s a lot of dialogue about “viruses” and “firewalls” and “wi-fi,” and there’s a major plot point about “crashing the system.” I know a movie about technology is bound to have some techno-speak in it, but I didn’t buy a lot of what I heard here.
Although they’re not given a whole lot to do, Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder fill in nicely as our leads, looking frightened when they need to, and stepping up and acting courageous when they need to. Samm Levine (Freaks & Geeks), Christina Milian (Love Don’t Cost a Thing), Rick Gonzalez (Coach Carter), and Ron Rifkin (Alias) also do fine jobs in their supporting roles.
For extras, we’re treated to two commentary tracks. The first, with director Jim Sonzero and makeup artist Gary Tunnicliffe, is rather dry, but the second, a group commentary with producers, crew members, and actor Samm Levine is a must-listen. The guys pick the movie apart with ruthless sarcasm, and they have plenty of brash wisecracks for each other as well. Levine is a funny, funny guy. Here’s hoping he gets his own sitcom sometime soon. Two featurettes take a look behind the scenes. Although interesting, they’re not that detailed. The third featurette contains interview segments with real paranormal researchers, including the guys from that Ghost Hunters show, discussing the use of electronics to communicate with the dead. It’s a curiosity piece, but I can certainly see some enterprising filmmaker using this as the kickoff for a full-length documentary. Also included are some deleted and alternate scenes and the original theatrical trailer.
Am I being too hard on this movie? At a mere 88 minutes, it moves along quickly, gives you some cool ghosts to look at, and it has a few solid performances. Maybe it’s not brainy horror, and maybe it’s not give-you-nightmares horror, but it’s an entertaining ride. If you’re expecting anything else, though, that’s when you’ll be disappointed.
It’s not bad, but Pulse just doesn’t pulsate like it should.