"Ghosts won't kill people, because that would just make more ghosts. Instead they'll try to make people immortal, by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness." —Pulse
Virtually every thriller or horror movie about computer technology and the Internet hits on the same irony: These devices are supposed to bring all us closer together, but instead they do the opposite, creating a network of individuals isolated from the whole of humanity. Most of the time, I wind up making fun of movies with this paranoid, get-off-my-lawn attitude about 21st-century forms of communication (see: I Watched This On Purpose: Untraceable and IWTOP: Perfect Stranger), but that doesn't make it entirely untrue, either. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, in addition to being the gold standard of J-horror ghost stories, strikes me as uniquely attuned to the real fears people have about the tech-driven world. Unlike Untraceable, Perfect Stranger, and their ilk, Pulse isn't rooted in the knee-jerk, clueless resistance of Andy Rooney types; instead, it's in tune with the new, and it's connected to the existential problems of living at a time when our virtual selves have as much (or more) a presence as our real selves. Oh yeah—it's also creepy as hell.
Pulse was made in 2001, but thanks to the Weinsteins, who bought the rights and buried the film while developing their own unbelievably crappy remake, it didn't reach American theaters until late 2005, when the independent label Magnolia slipped it onto a few screens without much fanfare. Though its reputation survived its period in exile, as plenty of enterprising cultists acquired the film through foreign and digital sources, by the time it was officially released from purgatory, the J-horror craze had crested in America. When the Hollywood version of The Ring came out in 2002, American audiences hadn't seen anything like it, and were suitably unnerved by the sight of hitch-stepped ghosts with pale visages, evils channeled through electronics, and insanely elaborate backstories that accounted for why their spirits were so ticked off in the first place. To give a sense of the diminishing returns, The Ring Two beat Kurosawa's Pulse to theaters, and the whole cottage industry of J-horror Americanizations hit a creative dead-end almost immediately. And yet it continued, zombie-like, thanks to swill like The Grudge and The Grudge 2, Dark Water, One Missed Call, and yes, the Pulse remake.
Watching the original Pulse again for this column, I was worried that seven years of knockoffs would wipe away its chilling aura and lay bare its overlong, convoluted, excessively cerebral storytelling. (More on that later.) Happily, this wasn't the case, as I once again ended up squirming in my seat as those blurry, hunched-over apparitions giddy-upped across the screen, in all their Lynchian strangeness. There's no particular menace to these specters—I recall Kurosawa himself, in a Q&A; following a screening of his fine 2000 thriller Séance, joking that ghosts in Japanese horror films "don't do anything"—but their presence is an unnerving suggestion of death itself, specifically that unholy transitional space between the human world and the afterlife. These aren't the usual hauntings, where spooks are looking to settle a piece of unfinished business; instead, they're pitiable folks who are now stuck, perhaps permanently, in one fixed place, from which they can never break free. To me, that prospect is a heck of a lot scarier.
The action in Pulse takes place among a small, interconnected group of college-age youths in a Tokyo that already seems vacant before people start disappearing. When one of them goes incommunicado for a week, his friends don't think too much of it, assuming that he's lost himself on a computer project for school. It turns out they're right, but how lost is another matter: When Michi (Kumiko Aso) goes looking for the missing young man in his apartment, she finds him dazed and a little off; the minute she turns her head to look for an important computer disc, he quietly walks into the other room with a coil of rope and hangs himself. Like many moments to come in Pulse, it's disturbing in large part because it's totally inexplicable. What got into this guy, anyway? And what's with that black, splotchy stain he leaves on the bedroom wall?
An answer—or least a suggestion of an answer—comes when the dead man's friends take a look at the disc and find an eerie shot of his apartment, which resembles a static webcam image, save for a persistent flicker (or pulse, if you will). On his computer monitor is the same image reflected ad infinitum, and his friends can see his figure standing frozen in place, off to the side. Meanwhile, somewhere else in the city, an amiable Luddite named Kawashima logs onto the Internet for the first time—"Welcome To The Internet," his screen reads, brightly—but the first image on his browser is a similarly spectral array of webcams and entranced figures, with a message reading, "Would you like to meet a ghost?" Kawashima takes his problems to Harue (Koyuki), a bright, attractive computer-lab operator who tries to help him get to the bottom of this mystery.
The first big shock comes when another student goes back to the victim's apartment to do some snooping. He finds a piece of paper that mentions "The Forbidden Room," which for the sake of this movie is a cordoned-off space where shit goes down. What happens in that place is arguably the signature sequence in all of J-horror, and one that had my petrified psyche doing its best impersonation of Lou Costello in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. "A humina-humina-humina…":
Just about every one of the Americanized J-horror movies has a sequence like that, and precisely none of them have gotten it right. Kurosawa doesn't go for heavy shock effects on the soundtrack, and he allows none of those generic screeching noises that pop off whenever a would-be victim gets a fake scare before the real one. (This is happening a lot with bathroom mirrors lately. Please make it stop.) His lighting and special effects are eerie enough on their own, but the key to Kurosawa's horror films has always been his careful use of sound, whether he's isolating a single piece of live noise, throwing extra emphasis on the music score, or cutting it out altogether. (I've always insisted that people see Kurosawa's 1997 thriller Cure—by far his best film, I think—either in a theater or piped through an excellent home stereo system, because it uses sound as well as any non-David Lynch film I can recall.) What everyone remembers about this sequence in Pulse are the ghost's movements and that slow climb over the sofa, but looking at it again, it's sold just as much by the ghostly chorus and aggressive ambient noises that rise up on the soundtrack.
Truth be told, I find long stretches of Pulse incoherent and glacially paced, and after a few viewings now, I'm no closer to piecing it all together. There's no complexity whatsoever to the characterization, and barely an effort to flesh out their relationships. On a related note, there's not much sense to the way these "ghosts in the machine" operate, no set rules to explain how a human gets sucked into the spectral/electronic world, or how they might manifest themselves later as hitch-stepped ghouls in the various "Forbidden Rooms," with their borders of red tape. I suspect there are answers to all these concerns—answers that will no doubt litter the comment board below—but Kurosawa fails to explicate them clearly (which isn't necessarily bad, as I'll explain in a second) or concisely (at nearly two hours, the film is unpardonably long).
At the same time, I'm mostly grateful that Pulse doesn't explain away all its mysteries. What Kurosawa lacks in narrative clarity, he more than makes up for in pure cinematic suggestion: It's one thing to come out and talk about how humans in the Internet age are like dots that never connect, as Harue does at one point. But Kurosawa also makes that point felt in the way his characters occupy these lonely corners of the city, and are doomed, in life and the afterlife, to wander around in isolated pods without coming into meaningful contact with anyone else. Pulse is a Luddite's movie for sure, just like Untraceable and Perfect Stranger, but it's far more insightful about how the Internet has transformed the way people interact. Kurosawa's ghosts aren't sexual predators lurking in chat rooms or evil glitches in an OnStar system, but normal people living within their screens and banished to an eternity of immortal despair. As otherworldly and strange as the film gets sometimes, anyone who's ever spent much time around a computer undoubtedly knows the feeling.
Next Wednesday: The Devil's Rejects
Dec. 4: Fallen Angels
Dec. 11: Exotica
Dec. 18: Reservoir Dogs