Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!
How many times has the U.S. remake of a good (or great) Japanese horror movie been worth watching? I would suggest that both The Ring and The Grudge probably count. The Ring is a very solid remake that was smart enough to keep things very similar, as well as trying to match the tone and intent of Ringu. The Grudge was smart enough to set things in Japan, just with American characters, so much of what worked in Ju-On still did. Sadly, this is not the case with Pulse, the 2006 remake of Kairo, one of the best Japanese horror films of the current century. (And before anyone says it, yes Let Me In was good enough, but it was a remake of a Swedish movie, not a Japanese one.)
To discuss exactly what is wrong with Pulse, I need to talk about what is right with Kairo. In the original version of this story, people around Tokyo are starting to shut down mentally, emotionally, and physically. There is a rash of suicides and disappearances, and many of them seem to be connected in some ways to electronic devices—phones, PDAs, computers, etc. At times, people who have disappeared or died have sent messages to the living asking for help. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that there is something infecting the electronic devices and sucking the will from people to live, and the danger and disappearances are spreading. It’s also soon evident that many of the disappearances are not people going into hiding but people who are essentially turning into ash.
Yes, it’s a weird premise, but it works in the context of the film. Kairo is about disconnection, about how these devices that were made to connect us to the world and to each other actually have had a much larger hand in splintering us and isolating us. This is surprisingly prescient for a film that debuted in Japan a good six years before the release of the first iPhone.
Pulse desperately wants to tell the same story but doesn’t have the intellectual or emotional muscle to pull it off. The basic idea is still definitely here, but this is the children’s Colorforms version of the original story. We’re sticking small, glossy versions of the character prototypes on similar backgrounds and pretending that it’s just as good as the real thing.
We’re introduced first to our collection of college students who will be our protagonists and victims. Our main protagonist is Mattie (Kristen Bell), whose character name I had to look up because she left that little impression on me. Mattie is joined by Izzy (Christina Millian), Stone (Rick Gonzalez), and Tim (Samm Levine). The fifth member of this crew is Josh (Jonathan Tucker), who has been seeing Mattie, but has also flaked off for some time. Mattie goes to investigate and discovers that Josh’s apartment is disgusting and vermin filled. Josh appears, tells her to hold on a minute, and goes off to hang himself.
From here, everyone starts to have upsetting events occurring. Josh appears to be messaging them from beyond, and there is clearly something going on with his computer. Mattie tries to get his computer but discovers his landlady (played by a clearly slumming Octavia Spencer) has sold it. She traces it to Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who has never bothered to connect it, so he can’t be the source of the messages they are all receiving.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. If you read the two paragraphs above that summarized the vastly superior Kairo, you know where this is going. Where it’s specifically going is bald, scary demon things that are frequently accompanied by static and other forms of electronic noise popping out of things to “get” people and sap their will to live.
Pulse is a movie that looks like it was shot through a dirty camera lens. Don’t get me wrong on this—the color palette of Kairo was bleak and dark as well, but it looks like a world where the color has been drained from it in some sense. Pulse just looks dirty, like there’s a layer of muck on the camera lens.
The truth is that it’s the bald demon things that ruin the film. In the original, there is a sense of otherness that is destroying people, but it is all very nebulous. The creatures never really appear—but people simply vanish or turn into a shadow-like stain on the wall behind them when they disappear. It’s upsetting because it simply…happens. In Pulse we are forced into seeing these shadowy things that are supposed to make us jump but destroy all of the mystery and oppressive sense of the original.
Less is more. Pulse forgot that, and it shows. It doesn’t help that the message of the film, so clear in the original, is lost in Pulse until it is literally said in voiceover at the end.
Why to watch Pulse: You’re a Luddite.
Why not to watch: It’s a child’s crayon drawing compared with the original.