Paired down to their essence, the recent wave of Japanese horror movies are little more than old-fashioned ghost stories. In fact, that's probably why they work—they join ancient scare techniques with modern technology like videotapes, and contemporary settings like suburban houses and high-rises. But apart from the first Ring movie, such films haven't exported all that well. Adapted from a spooky film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa—whose Cure remains an unsettling must-see even for those who think they're sick of J-horror—Pulse has a premise that can be boiled down to three simple words: computer-virus ghosts. It sounds ridiculous, but Kurosawa's original made it work with deadpan understatement and a mood of creeping apocalypse—both of which are absent in the American remake written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, and directed by Jim Sonzero.
Casting everything in a metallic blue light, Sonzero's Pulse looks apocalyptic from the first frame, in which a hapless young man encounters something awful in a college library. Then he disappears, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Kristen Bell, who's trapped in a standard-issue girl-in-peril role that calls on none of the skills spotlighted by her starring role in Veronica Mars. Investigating his absence, she shows up at his squalid apartment just in time to watch him commit suicide, making it all the more shocking when he shows up online a few days later. Soon, Bell and her friends, then the general public, begin to encounter cyberghosts, which spread across networks faster than penis-enlargement spam.
Pulse makes some clever points about how digital technology has crept into the most intimate aspects of modern life, but they're lost in a sea of watch-out-for-the-oogum-boogums-that-pop-out-of-nowhere scares. It doesn't help that the online beasties look like they crawled off a Cradle Of Filth album cover, or that Romania makes for a poor stand-in for Columbus, Ohio. (Hint: Columbus doesn't contain nearly so many crumbling, twisty side-streets that look like they've been in use since the days of Vlad The Impaler.) But ultimately, the glacial pace kills Pulse. What was dreadful and trance-like in the original feels here like nothing-much-at-all sandwiched between some stock horror jolts.