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At the turn of the millennium horror, fans on both sides of the Atlantic were fast tiring of the self-referential slasher cycle kicked off by “Scream.” To the extent that there are horror fans to this day that hate “Scream” not so much, it appears, for anything the movie itself did but because of the wave of poor imitations it inspired. Due to this fatigue with mainstream American horror, fans looked elsewhere for their kicks and the J-Horror craze kicked in gear first off with “Ringu” (which was made in 1998 but did not receive a UK release until 2000) which was a like a breath of fresh air in a sea of generic horrors of the time.
Many believe that “Pulse” could have played a bigger role in that craze where it not for the Weinstein’s who bought the rights for it in order to make a remake. The Weinstein’s then stopped it from receiving a general release in the US at the time. Meaning this 2001 film did not hit American cinemas until late 2005 while in the UK it did not reach the big screen until early 2006 by which time the J-Horror craze had petered out. Despite this “Pulse” still managed to pick up a cult following due to many enterprising horror fans getting it on import DVDs.
Whether it would have made a bigger splash with a wider release at the time is a matter as in many ways “Pulse” is less accessible than say “Ringu” or “Ju-On: The Grudge.” Both of which with their pale-faced jerkily moving ghost where unique at the time but at least they still have relatively familiar genre pacing and storylines you can follow if you are paying attention. Whereas “Pulse” not only has glacial pacing but narratively, with its crazy tale of internet ghosts which make people commit suicide, is a jumble even if you are watching in close detail. Not that this should come as a surprise to anybody anyone familiar with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has made his name making genre features but with an off-beat auteurist twist.
So while “Pulse” maybe a ghost story it is one less concerned with scare than it is with mood, atmosphere, and cultural commentary. The latter being the irony that in a world ever closer connected by the internet that people have never been more isolated and lonely. Not an original point or one it drives home subtly but one that seems prescient give this was made in 2001 when the internet had nowhere near the role it plays in people’s lives that it does now. Also unlike many films which have dealt with the same topic of loneliness in the digital age, few have the same impact or feeling as Kurosawa packs in every frame of the movie with a sense of dread and melancholy that resonates and makes it feel more than mere tutting ludditism.
As well as referring to the effect of the internet the film’s social commentary also specifically looks at Japan and how work and education trump interpersonal relationships with the film given extra resonance given the very real spate of suicides which occurred in Japan, at the time, due to the economic downturn in the late ’90s.
A lot is going on here, not all of which is made explicit which is the same with the plot very little of which is explained. Questions such as how do people end up in spectral/internet realm? How do the ghosts appear in the Forbidden Rooms? What is the significance of the red tape? Why do all the victims leave behind a black stain where their corpse was?
Moreover, many others are left unanswered. Loose ends and unanswered questions are not necessarily a bad thing but the plot logic, or lack thereof, does test the patience at times. The movie also escalates from ghost story to apocalyptic dystopia without warning.
The lack of coherence is not the only issue as there is also almost no attempt at characterisation. The ensemble is more character traits than characters as we have the cute nerdy computer girl (Harue), the laidback technophobe (Ryosuke) and the shy plant shop employee and caring friend (Michi). These characters incidentally are the three lead characters. You could take this as a sign of lazy writing, but equally, you can see this is a sign of tieing in with movies theory of the increased atomisation of modern culture due to technology, and therefore it makes a kind of sense we know nothing about the characters inner lives. Not necessarily a theory your writer here ascribes too but a possibility nonetheless.
Despite its flaws though “Pulse” is undoubtedly a film packed with memorable imagery and is likely to resonate long after you watch it. Amongst stand-outs is an excellently composed sequence where we see a woman commit suicide by leaping from a water tower. A woman who we initially see in the background of the frame as Michi (Kumiko Aso) is taking a phone call in the foreground only for her turn round in time to see the woman plummet to her death. What makes the scene more unnerving is the lack of reaction of the people walking down the street with only Michi going over to survey the horrific scene. This scene is not the only one to leave an indelible mark as there is a few other scattered throughout including one which impressively makes hands coming over a couch seem unsettling.
Predictably given the films oblique, even by Kurosawa’s standards, nature the reviews upon its release in the West were mixed with some hailing it a J-Horror classic while others were left baffled but overall the critical reaction it received was positive. The same could not be said for the dumbed-down 2006 remake which was critically savaged upon release for stripping out the creepy atmospherics and adding in a bunch of horror clichés. Possibly the saddest thing about the remake, besides the aforementioned, is that the late Wes Craven has a writing credit although at the time of release he stated: "I have had no influence at all on the film they are about to release.” After he had been removed as director and replaced by Jim Sonzero, Craven’s screenplay was also rewritten by Ray Wright so we will never know if Craven’s “Pulse” would have been better, but it seems safe to bet it certainly could not have be any worse.Despite the remakes, critical beatdown and the lack of audience appreciation Hollywood decided to make two direct-to-DVD sequels (both 2008) which received even worse reviews. None of this in the end truly tarnished the original as the movie retains its cult classic status while thankfully the remake and especially the remakes sequels have been largely forgotten about.
 Losing the Pulse, by Calum Waddell, Fangoria Magazine, No. 255, August 2006