The Disc That Wouldn’t Die: Examining The PULSE Trilogy

ShockheaderDISC

In this ongoing SHOCK column, journo Trevor Parker sifts through discount stores for the cheapest and coolest DVD’s and Blu’s he can find and lives to tell the tale.

Pulse1

 

For the assurance of younger SHOCK readers out there: Asian horror was once, for a brief spell, a thing. Before the boom eventually fizzed, Asian horror was seen as fresh, exotic, and brought a sort of nobility, a sort of purity to its scare set-ups—more about a feeling of inevitable doom and less about gore gags or noisy barking.

Here came moody, ghostly shockers like Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON, Kim Ji Woon’s A TALE OF TWO SISTERS and the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE; the films arriving stateside refreshingly unburdened by calculated teen-marketing signifiers, like disposable pop-rock pap seeded into the soundtrack or the inclusion of comic relief stoner characters providing funny quips to feature in the trailer. Not wanting to miss out on dollars from the subtitle-averse, Hollywood soon made their own takes on Asian horror classics, starting with the unexpected success of Gore Verbinski’s still-startling RINGU remake THE RING and peaking with Takashi Shimizu’s English language adaptation of his own JU-ON as THE GRUDGE.

Many more remakes followed, bringing diminishing returns both artistically and financially as the sub-genre speedily staled, with spooky ghost children inserted into whatever household situation or object becoming laughably de rigeur. The source stream also dried up in a hurry, with much of recent Asian horror’s deficit of ideas so pronounced that they were soon offering straight-faced takes starring killer hair extensions (that would be EXTE, directed by SUICIDE CLUB’s Sion Sono and starring KILL BILL’s Chiaki Kuriyama, if anyone is curious), while fatigued franchise warhorses RINGU and JU-ON took a cue from Hollywood and have their very own “versus” crossover flick coming down the pipe.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s somberly existential KAIRO was a J-Horror staple held in high international regard, and so quickly became a plum target during that Hollywood remake fever. Developed at Miramax/Dimension studio with the late, great Wes Craven (who still retains a writing credit on the finished film), the remake was titled PULSE (2006) and was ultimately helmed by newcomer Jim Sonzero. When casting PULSE, Sonzero and Dimension operated along the schematic laid out by 2004’s THE GRUDGE—center on a known teen television commodity, in this case plucky VERONICA MARS herself, Kristen Bell. There’s also a pre-VAMPIRE DIARIES Ian Somerhalder as a mysterious outsider, and pop singer Christina Milian in that shallow role of promiscuous best friend always ready to dispense some sassy relationship advice to our heroine. Add in throwaway cameos from Oscar winners Octavia Spencer and Brad Dourif, and some subtle, streamlined creature makeup by the often-unheralded Gary (CANDYMAN) Tunnicliffe, and PULSE would seem guaranteed to offer some level of chills.

Pulse

Not so. KAIRO, and thus PULSE, is a film with a very sparse storyline: The hacker boyfriend to Bell’s Mattie inadvertently uncorks a genie’s lamp when he discovers the spirits of the dead are infiltrating the world of the living through electromagnetic wavelengths, essentially able to haunt any computer or cell phone. While unable to penetrate the color red, the spirits can nevertheless attack the living and steal their will to live, leaving their victims despondent to the point of suicide… or if they manage to suppress that urge, they soon explode into a pile of ashes (it all makes a bit more sense in the context of the film). The lean plotting is meant to build and develop atmospheric scares, a technique which works to great effect in the Japanese version, but is tragically bungled here by Sonzero and his editors. Their PULSE is altogether too hurried, too choppy, too eager in pandering to attention spans miniaturized by music videos and Mountain Dew. Kurosawa allowed KAIRO’s frights to breathe and smolder, while PULSE simply races through a succession of forgettable jump scares shot through a gloomy grey filter. A director who knows the value of quiet percolation, someone like HOUSE OF THE DEVIL’s Ti West maybe, could likely have saved PULSE (assuming a studio run by the Weinstein Brothers would even indulge a director planning that tack), but the audience is left to rue a fumbled pass.  If the forgettable PULSE has one positive, it’s in how Sonzero features his clips of webcam suicide—grainy, jerky underlit webcam footage being inherently creepy to watch.

Pulse2

PULSE was nobody’s definition of a hit, but as was the case with MIMIC and THE PROPHECY, Dimension films weren’t about to let their marketing spend go to waste and quickly followed up with a pair of direct-to-video sequels. Before discussing PULSE 2: AFTERLIFE (2008) and PULSE 3 (2008), as written and directed by Joel (THE PROPHECY 2 and 3) Soisson, a warning: much of the footage in both films is composited, with very phony backgrounds often dubbed in behind live actors. This technique will likely be a dealbreaker for many viewers… One hopes that this was an intentional aesthetic choice, with Soisson aiming to replicate the stylized look of, say, Robert Rodrigez’s SIN CITY. In reality, most will probably side with your columnist and assume that a hard drive filled with dailies got erased somewhere along the line, and that the fake backgrounds were a cheap way to reshoot missing footage. Sadly, there are zero special features on the disc to illuminate us either way.

Pulse3

It’s a bit of a shame, because the sequels are simply better films than the first, boasting a stronger narrative and improved characterisations. After the downbeat ending of the first PULSE had society collapsing under the invasion of the wireless dead, the PULSE sequels have survivors now out in the wild, searching for dead spots in signal coverage under which to build their refugee encampments. Part 2 has a flawed father (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Jamie Bamber) on the run and protecting his small daughter from the deadly attentions of her deceased mother. Part 3 has the daughter now grown into a teenager and sneaking into the abandoned and thoroughly haunted city of Houston after contacting a possible paramour (CABIN FEVER’s Rider Strong) via the now-forbidden venue of online communication.

The two films were obviously shot together and play out as two chapters of a single story. Soisson is allowed the more languid and contemplative pace that would have much benefited the first film. He’s also not beholden to deliver PG-13 product, as was the case with PULSE part one, and tosses in a couple of left-field gore moments (the housecat scene in part two… Yikes!) to spice things up alongside artful shots of drifting ash.

The technology in these PULSE films has dated, with flip-phones and hilariously thick laptops abounding, but the theme has only grown more immediate as humanity has since has plunged even deeper into smartphone and internet consumption.

The first PULSE will go down as a wasted opportunity, if it’s at all remembered, but the two sequels have enough zap to warrant a rediscovery.

 

Trending

Marvel and DC