Pulse (2005)recommended viewing

Ghost world
Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Aso, Koyuki, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Shinji Takeda
The Setup: 
Social isolation is turning people into ghosts.

This movie came out about five years ago in Japan, and was immediately bought by Miramax, who shelved it for whatever reason they do such things, driving J-horror fans crazy. There is apparently an American remake in the works, written by Wes Craven, among others, and starring the charming Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars. Sadly, it also stars Cristina Milian, so I guess teen-land, here we come. Anyway, since the remake will come out early next year, they decided to dump this one out to generate some buzz.

I had seen one of the director’s previous films, Cure, about a serial killer who hypnotizes people into killing others, never actually killing anyone himself. It was one of those “okay, I’ll go see something completely off the wall” movie choices, and while I didn’t completely love the movie, I have never forgotten it. So when I saw that this director had a new film out, and its subject matter sounded so intriguing, I hot-footed it to the theater.

So these people who work at what appears to be some plant research facility are waiting for a computer disc from a friend of theirs. They haven’t heard from him in a week. One of them goes over to his apartment and finds him, and while he’s in a good mood, a second later he has hung himself. She’s freaked out, but takes the disc back with her.

What continues to happen doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense, and I’m not sure I can do the best job explaining it. There’s a guy who has never accessed the internet [a bit unrealistic as he has advanced gaming equipment, and a decent-looking computer], suddenly decides to. Then the Internet starts dialing up by itself, inviting him to a site showing strange people in masks and asking him; “Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Meanwhile, a friend of theirs pulls the red duct tape off from around the edges of a doorway, and encounters a ghost inside. Other critics have been freaked out by the way the ghosts move. I didn’t think much unusual about it. Anyway, so the pattern is that one of the characters becomes curious about one of these “forbidden rooms,” goes inside, sees a ghost, becomes catatonic for a few days, then is moved to commit suicide themselves. It’s a bit like The Grudge or other Japanese horror movies in this structure of a cyclical series of events happening again and again.

Meanwhile, video game guy has visited a woman working in a computer lab. He sees something on a screen that is a model made by one of the other graduate students. It shows a bunch of dots floating around in space. We are told that they never get close enough to touch, but when they get too far out they are brought back in. It is voiced that this may be a model for society, as people are isolated from each other, and never really connect. This message is inextricable from all of the communication technology present in the film, cell phones, video links, Internet, and the connection is made clearer by the fact that a great deal of the ghostly phenomena seem to pass over or through the electronic devices.

The movie stays tightly with its main characters, but we are to understand that the ghostly virus is spreading exponentially throughout Tokyo, causing people to commit suicide and turning into more ghosts. There is one suicide in particular that I found quite shocking, mostly because the majority of films cut away before we see the final moments of the act.

There is some discussion about what is causing all this. One is that there is no more room in the afterlife, and so ghosts are draining into our world. Another is that people who become lost in loneliness eventually literally become ghosts, and it is the isolation of society itself [as exemplified by the electronic devices, which supposedly “connect” people while keeping them physically separated] that is drawing people into death. This one seems to be the most convincing, as the characters start feeling the need to become closer in order to survive, and find that they are unable to do so. There is repeated discussion of the characters going “as far as they can go,” at which point you recall that the dots in the simulation are never allowed to head off the screen, although they also can never touch. Note that when one of the characters suddenly turns to dust, the motes floating in the air consciously recall the floating dots of the simulation.

Perhaps the most effective thing about the movie is how it stays tightly with its main characters, so when you begin to realize that the phenomenon is spreading steadily throughout society, and we’re at near-apocalypse levels, it’s quite an effective shock. There is a particular scene with a plane which is the only one of its kind on the film, and it works so well precisely because it is so unique. Though I love the recent War of the Worlds, this film does a much better job of giving an impact to the larger devastation of society while using the same method—showing it from the intimate perspective of a few characters.

Another part of this movie’s great effect is exactly that it DOESN’T ever fully explain what’s happening. We are fumbling as much as its characters, trying to hold strands together, and involved in trying to figure it out. While you won’t walk out of this saying “What an awesome movie, dude!” it is very creepy and effective, and will stay with you long after leaving the theater. I told you I never forgot one of this director’s previous films, and I expect this one to stay with me for years as well.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you’re a horror fan, and doubly especially if you’re a Japanese horror fan. It may not be the scariest, but it is very rich and leaves a lot with you.

PULSE [AMERICAN REMAKE] is now out, and did in fact dumb down the concept and make everything more obvious, exactly as suspected.
PULSE [1988] is an unrelated movie about evil electricity [with a little help from plumping!] that has sequences that may have inspired The Ring.