Pulse (1988)

Electricity and Plumbing: A household axis of evil
Paul Golding
Joey Lawrence, Cliff De Young, Roxanne Hart
The Setup: 
Evil electricity menaces family.

I bought this little forgotten… thing for $2.99 at one of those places that sells off the inventory of dead video stores. It caught my eye because I was really into the Japanese horror movie Pulse, and am really looking forward to the American remake [if only to see how it flattens out all the ideas]. This one is unrelated to either, but the general idea of evil electricity and the possibility of appliances attacking people made $2.99 seem like a pretty fair price.

The movie opens with a couple being awakened by the guy across the street freaking out. They see all the lights on and his shadow as he runs around the house destroying everything. They call the police, who go inside and find the entire place filled with water, all the wiring ripped out, and the guy dead. The big surprise is: this is relatively effective! The whole thing of this sedate suburban calm being upset by someone going totally nuts is always a keeper, and this incidence is handled pretty well.

Next we cut to Joey Lawrence clutching his little pony doll on an airplane. Turns out he’s coming to stay with his Dad and his Dad’s new wife, which he’s not too happy about. Really he has issues regarding his parent’s divorce. He complains about his Dad’s smoking and the fact that their food has mushrooms in it. He is introduced to the room they had made up for him, which features a bed made up to look like a giant race car, facing a wall painted to look like a highway extending in front of him [with a prominent no drinking sign]. This is also the kind of house, and the time of American history, when a viable piece of home décor was red plastic letters that say “Etc.”

Anyway, so Joey tries to make friends with the kids in the neighborhood, finally settling for the obvious loser kid of the neighborhood, who tells him that the guy across the street went crazy after his wife was killed via projectile from the sink disposal, and the first sign was the grass around his house dying. Then Joey was hoping to spend some quality time with his Dad, but Dad and his wife have to go to some party that night, leaving Joey alone. He tries to watch the game, but the TV freaks out, first showing him part of this videotape [more on this later], then just playing the sound of some QVC-type program. While this happens we go INSIDE the TV set and have a fairly cool effect where we watch the circuits melt and re-form into a different configuration. It’s kind of neat, but it ends up going nowhere.

Anyway, Joey’s Dad and surrogate mom think he’s crazy, which is not helped by his sneaking into the house across the street, where he meets a crazy old man who believes that electricity did it. This is the second of two times when Joey is in a state of terror that seems to result in the appearance of a large threatening adult man. You will also note the number of times when Joey is imploring an adult to “just listen to me” and they don’t. So you’re thinking, okay, standard divorce subtext, he is afraid of his dad and wants to retreat to his mother’s house, where they don’t have, uh, mushrooms. There is also a vaguely sexual threat from his father, at least perceived by Joey, the way he talks about wanting to get out of his Dad’s house, and how the men appear at the culmination of is feelings of terror. There’s also the fact that his Dad smokes, usually perceived as sexual, and that his Dad, you know, has mushrooms. I hope I don’t have to spell all this out for you.

I forgot to mention, earlier, the presence of this sleazy electrician who shares a scene with mom and treats her with this bizarre, leering confidence. Then Joey gets trapped in the garage with a burst gas pipe [Holy fuck! Electricity and plumbing are in on it TOGETHER!], and it seems that ramming a car at the average garage door multiple times is NOT enough to get through it. Those things are strong! When the family gets a cursory explanation from a plumber, Mom FREAKS OUT at him, screaming “You don’t know what happened!” Joey surrogate mom is played by Roxanne Hart, who apparently rose to stardom as the heroine of Highlander. She kind of rocks, and is among the best things here.

Anyway, mom is starting to believe little Joey, and therefore it’s not too long before she gets it. She turns on the mysterious videotape I mentioned, then goes upstairs for a shower. Electricity and plumbing team up again to work their nefarious purposes, as they conspire to boil mommy in the shower. Incredibly, these forces are able to freeze the shower control in place and also lock glass shower doors. So mom gets a little pink and blistered, but she lives, though at the hospital, leaving dad and Joey alone to resolve their issues and head into the climax.

Joey and Dad are staying at the neighbor’s, but for some reason Dad gets up in the middle of the night and goes back home. He also clicks on the videotape, and noises in the house immediately start. Joey soon comes over, and we see this beam coming out of the television and flashing in his eyes repeatedly. Is it taking over his brain? Apparently not, as it’s seemingly doing nothing but giving us a somewhat cool effect. Joey gets trapped upstairs while his dad is in the basement, and the house starts filling up with water like the first house at the beginning. Dad finally believes Joey, and chops himself out of the basement with an axe, gets Joey, and chops down the front door with the axe. He proceeds to chop down the telephone pole in front of his house, which send the transformer falling through the house, destroying everything. His neighbors are standing around gawking like at the beginning of the movie, and Dad and Joey are taken away as crazy by the police, whereupon they bond in the squad car.

Overall, it wasn’t so good, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I expected. A lot of the suspense scenes were well-directed and genuinely creepy—IF you can get past how ludicrous the entire concept is and just roll with it. Oh, and we never get any explanation of WHY electricity turned evil in this case. During the credits we see some kind of big lightning storm, but it is never referred to again. The sleazy electrician and the crazy old man both mention these spikes and dips in electrical current that we don’t even usually notice [God damn it! Con Edison has been perpetrating the biggest cover-up in human history!], and that this is the “pulse.” But it seems like these scenes exist merely to get the word “pulse” in there are justification for the title. And you know, WHAT does Con Edision think about this film and the shocking implications it has for all electricity users? Have they even CONSIDERED how all of society might be held in a grip of terror should electricity and plumbing start working together to gain dominance over mankind? WELL I FUCKING SUGGEST THAT THEY >START< THINKING ABOUT IT!!!

Anyway, you remember what I said about that videotape, right? Here’s the deal: Mom rented the tape for Dad and Joey to watch the night they left him alone, when the TV re-wired itself. The TV showed him a bit of the tape, a woman’s eye and a lock of hair that we close in on until we see it at a molecular level, and you can’t help but see that tape and think of The Ring. The next night mom explains that the melting TV destroyed the tape and she had to buy it from the store, for $60. It’s not mentioned again, but we DO notice that both dad and mom turn on the tape just prior to bad things happening in the house, clearest at the end of the movie, when dad turns on the tape and the noises start immediately after. This movie came out in 1988 and the novel of The Ring was released in 1998, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this movie may have given the author the IDEA for The Ring. When you add what I just mentioned to the fact that in both bad things come out of the TV AND the final confrontations take place amongst all that water, you kind of have to wonder.

That’s about it. Like I said, if you can allow yourself to just go with the premise, the technique can be pretty scary and suspenseful. I don’t think I’ll ever need to watch this again, but it was fun enough while it lasted. Interestingly, the director of this movie was the writer of Beat Street, and collaborated with George Lucas on a movie called Herbie [not the love bug] .

But where does this film leave us as a society? Just as we now wait for Bird Flu to finally mutate into a virus that is transmissible between humans, I think it’s only a matter of time before electricity and plumbing get together. We can only pass our remaining days hopeful but aware, trying to leach every moment of happiness out of our dwindling time before that horrific day.

Hold me.

Should you watch it: 

You could do worse, but it’s not really worth seeking out.