Along with Hideo Nakata's seminal "Ringu", Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 1997 film "Kyua" (Cure) helped to define the emerging trend for Japanese horror. Kurosawa went on to direct and write a number of oblique, semi-arthouse flicks in the creepy Kwaidan category which, although not as well known as the subsequent Ring or Grudge franchises (many of his films have still yet to receive DVD releases in the West), took the genre well beyond the pale long-haired ghost girl cliché. Kurosawa's films use horror as a metaphor for themes of social alienation and societal dysfunction. His original version of "Pulse" was a disquieting, un-showey exploration of the distancing effects of modern digital communications technology; a deliberately paced, sparsely lit examination of the alienation Kurosawa discerned behind the virtual wall of electronic "chatter" that defines modern youths' mode of interaction in contemporary Japan. If human relationships become, in a sense, non-material, with people interacting with each other only in a Platonic realm composed of 1s and 0s -- then maybe we're closer to the limbo of the Dead than we care to realise. This simple idea informed a disquieting tale of teen suicide and angst, filled with uneasy images of pixilated ghosts on spectral web-casts, still glumly going about their routine business in cyberspace, but threatening to "infect" the living with their digitised torpor. Kurosawa's films rarely elucidate plot or attempt to join all the dots to make complete rational sense of the imagery; unfortunately, this is not an approach countenanced by this Dimension Films, North American remake, which insists on attempting to make everything crystal clear for the PG-13 target audience, and only succeeds in drawing attention to the absurdities and neo-luddite anxieties that underpin the themes of the film.
For a film which was originally planned as the latest directorial project for Wes Craven -- before Miramax broke with Dimension Films -- it seems to have snuck out of the stalls virtually unnoticed. Craven's name only remains attached to the project by way of his co-writing credit on the distinctly average screenplay. The directorial duties instead go to first-time director Jim Sonzero, who crafts an efficient, unremarkable little supernatural thriller which soon gets buried beneath its own portentousness, though it remains a passable way of spending eighty minutes for all that.
After her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) commits suicide in front of her, Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) and her friends Isabelle (Christina Milian), Stone (Rick Gonzalez) and Tim (Samm Levine) are more than a little shocked when Josh's name continues to appear on their internet chat board, flashing up the message, "help me" alongside it. When Stone goes back to his apartment to turn off Josh's computer, an eerie apparition appears to him, after which his body becomes covered in foul black bruises and he loses all his usual zest for life. Mattie realises that the same change in personality afflicted Josh just before his death; something strange is going on. It even seems to be affecting most of her classmates: there has been a plague of suicides and the campus is becoming increasingly deserted -- apparently because of a flu virus. The school psychologist (Ron Rifkin) is not sympathetic to Mattie's 'paranoid' suspicions, but she finds a friend in the new tenant of Josh's flash, Dexter McCarthy (Ian Somerhalder), who has found disturbing images on Josh's old computer that refuse to be erased from his hard drive.
They depict a veritable menagerie of pale ghostly figures shuffling about in darkened rooms, looking rather unhappy. The rest of Mattie's group of friends soon succumb to the same awful malady which now seems to be sweeping all over the world. Following clues from Josh's last video messages, Dexter and Mattie realise that the demonic ghosts are gaining access to the material world via the Wi Fi network; cell phones and the internet are spreading the virus, allowing the spirits to draw life energy from the rapidly ailing population. With apocalypse approaching, Mattie and Dexter rush to shut down the network by infecting the computer that started the epidemic with a virus Josh was preparing before his death. But are they too late?
Far from the austere abstract chiller crafted by Kurosawa, Sonzero's re-make starts off looking more like an advert for the high-tech gadgets that provide the demons with their gateway into the world. Blackberries, cell-phones, palm-tops, flatscreen monitors: all are featured prominently, attached to the persons of a cast, mostly composed of young, good-looking folk from contemporary U.S. television. An immensely cute Kristen Bell (from "Veronica Mars") appears to the strains of a sub-Pink power pop soundtrack and hooks up with that geeky fella out of "Lost". All of their friends look like fashion models and few audience members will find the anti-technology metaphor at the heart of the film at all convincing when it is conveyed by a bunch of people who look to be doing just fine, thank you very much. But Sonzero's idea of digitally grading the film's imagery so that everything is bathed in a cold murky, green-blue ambience, creates an effective visual short cut that sums up the feeling of alienation engendered by the original film's grungy ugliness.
The 'ghost-demons' themselves are often very disturbing in their appearance, and have been given an extra zombie makeover to give the film a look of its own, that doesn't depend so much on the usual long-haired ghosts that populate most Asian horror and its spin-offs. There are certainly plenty of shock moments during the eighty minute running time; and the unexpected apocalyptic angle widens the scope of the film beyond the limited domestic concerns that usually form the subject matter of J-horror plots, but the film just does not stand out enough to distinguish it from the pack. It has the feel of a pilot for a TV series; sure, there a few scary moments and one is certainly entertained enough to keep watching until the end, but it doesn't linger in the memory afterwards, or -- which is more to the point -- make me at all anxious about typing up this review on my PC!
For a film that received precious little fanfare upon its release, Paramount have not stinted on the DVD release, which comes with more bells and whistles than many a blockbuster. There are trailers, 'making of' documentaries and special effects featurettes aplenty, not to mention a silly featurette which attempts to convince stupid people that ghosts are really popping-up all over the internet via images that look no more ghost-like than the swirly face patterns in the tiles on my bathroom floor! If that isn't enough, we are blessed with a grand total of two commentary tracks: the first, with director Jim Sonzero and special effects wizard Gary Tunnicliffe, is a rather stilted affair, with both participants struggling to come to grips with the commentary format; the second features just about everybody: actors, producers, line producers, editors -- hell, even the garbage man gets his say! (well, okay, I made that bit up.) The one thing evident from both of these tracks is that this was one hard slog of a production, with countless re-shoots and much agonizing behind the scenes. The film that has emerged at the end of it all is merely adequate though ,offering nothing new or noteworthy and nothing to set the viewers' pulses racing.