Pulse (2006)

That freaky, freaky frequency
Jim Sonzero
Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Rick Gonzalez, Jonathan Tucker
The Setup: 
A frequency someone found lets ghosts seep into our world and saps people’s will to live.

I was super-psyched to see this movie, because I had loved the Japanese original, which was so obtuse and subtle I knew that it was particularly ripe for getting massively screwed up when trying to adapt it to something American teenagers might understand and be scared by. In the Japanese version no corpses jump out of laundry machines, we do not see people turning into stains, and there are many things the audience is never offered a direct explanation for, you’re just left to—imagine this—use your own brain power to piece together. I’ll be comparing the two versions a lot throughout this review.

I should also mention that I saw this movie on opening night in a theater full of a lot of teenagers of all races who were in large groups of friends, and who were in the mood to SCREAM. Had I wanted to enjoy the movie as something of quality this would have been annoying, but since I really just wanted to deride it for how badly it dumbed-down what the original film was, this proved to be the perfect audience, and the whole experience was very fun and lively.

The opening credits try to express how prevalent electronics are in our lives. Okay, as IF anyone needs any additional proof of that. We then join our heroine’s boyfriend Josh, who is walking through a library and all freaked out. There is a ghost attack within the first 30 seconds of the movie, wherein Josh is, uh, sucked by a ghost.

Then we meet Mattie, college student played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame. Mattie and company attend college in the dirtiest, grungiest city Ohio has to offer [we’re setting a movie in OHIO?], and for the first half you’re sitting there like “WHERE is his city? What, is everything a total slum?” The entire city looks like some community college that started with shitty facilities 20 years ago and has been burned, graffittied, broken, and not cleaned every year in between. It’s a bit ridiculous. Mattie is friends with Christina Milian, trying to extend her tepid singing career into a tepid acting career, and two other guys, one black, one hispanic. Together they truly express the United Colors of Benneton.

Mattie, who needs to take the eye liner down a notch, is concerned by not having heard from her former boyfriend Josh, the one we saw getting sucked in the library. She goes over to his apartment, where she finds the computer on in an equivalent shot to the view of the computer from the original, only a bit more souped up with constantly-moving graphics and such. Mattie finds that Josh has not exactly been hip on cleanliness lately, and has roaches in the sink and—completely weird and unexplained—a crippled, greasy CAT locked in his closet. I don’t know WHERE that came from [or where it went]. Anyway, Josh is there, and he has a nasty black stain on him, and he tells Mattie to hold on while he goes in the other room and hangs himself.

Soon after this all the friends start getting IMs from Josh saying “Help me.” But wait a minute—Josh is dead! So they think that Josh’s computer must be somehow still on and sending them messages. That say “Help me.” So they send a member of their cru over to turn his computer off. He wanders around the apartment, then he sees a woman who comes at him and presumably sucks him as well.

Up until now this movie has stayed fairly close to the original. In the original all the friends worked at a facility studying plants, and the Josh character was delivering a piece of software for them. The apartment is neglected, but not filthy, i.e. no roaches and certainly no wounded cats. The second character who goes to the Josh character's actually sees him, turns away, and when he turns back, there is just a vaguely humanoid black stain on the wall. In Japan, this would have a lot of cultural resonance, based on the human shadows left on walls post-Hiroshima. This is one of those things that is very evocative, but not really explained. The character who later goes to the apartment leaves and goes to another basement room in the complex, and that’s where he sees the woman, which makes more sense, as… why is this woman in Josh’s apt? Anyway, the parts in which this movie apes the original end up being the most successful, such as the simple shot of the ghost woman just walking toward the camera. Oh, by the way, in the original, they didn’t get IMs from the dead guy, but phone calls where he said “Help me,” akin to the creepy phone calls in The Grudge.

So anyway, no one has heard from the guy who went over to Josh’s, but they start to connect to this weird thing on their computers that shows pale people looking at them. Mattie goes to Josh’s, where she meets an obese black landlady straight out of Gone With the Wind, who tells her she sold the computer to some refugee from a boy band. Mattie finds him, and discovers that Josh’s computer is in the trunk of his car, and thus couldn’t be sending them messages. Oh my God!

Meanwhile Josh sent them all a roll of red duct tape, with the message “It keeps them out. Don’t know why.” The reason Josh doesn’t know why is that the screenwriter of this movie doesn’t know why, because it’s never explained in the original. You just see it lining the doors and windows of several apartment buildings. You start to notice it and wonder what it’s about, and eventually piece it together, but here, of course, we can’t leave anything unexplained and we certainly can’t count on the audience to piece anything together. In the original the people would just LINE their doors and windows with the tape. Here they cover them completely. I guess that makes it more X-Treme.

In here we also see several news reports about an unexplained rash of suicides in the area. Then there’s some material about how the people on the campus are dwindling. Again, in the original this was not called attention to. We stayed very closely within the perspective of our main character, and we only see suicides obliquely, until the end, where the movie opens up the perspective and there is a tremendously powerful effect of “Holy shit! This is happening all over and everyone is gone! The world is actually ending!” But here we can’t have anything sudden or anything hidden from the audience, so we have to foreshadow long ahead, in my opinion, losing a lot of the power of this effect in the original. Also in the original the main character is walking down the street, then sees this woman atop a tower. The woman trows herself off, falls, and BAM! Hits the pavement! This is one of those few moments that can mak a jaded filmgoer like myself jump out of my seat and say “Oh my God!” It isn’t here. I saw a gimpse of an equivalent scene in the trailer, but I’m thinking they decided it was too much for our fragile American minds. Isn’t it funny how everything has to be X-Treme, and yet we can’t show anything that’s actually extreme?

So here someone goes to another friend’s house and sees the black stuff on his skin. He touches it, causing someone in the audience to exasperatedly say “And he’s gonna touch it!” We actually SEE the guy turn into the stain on the wall, which is considerably more vulgar than the original would ever do. It is also accomplished with CGI, which the original used very sparingly. By this time, the audience I was with was just making cracks. When Mattie’s printer starts printing out a giant puzzle for her [as seen in the trailer], someone shouted “Now let’s see what you have won!” And later, after a creepy monster has jumped out of the washing machine [also seen in the trailer], the guy next to me cackled “That’s it for you, Christina Milian!” Also, I don’t know, is it a common fear that something creepy might jump out of a washing machine? It must be, for as much as it appears in movies from Dark Water to The Video Dead. Later, just before Milian turns to dust, we see her in vivid close-up with a long river of snot running out of her nose and into her mouth, causing the audience to collectively go “Eeeewwww!”

Anyway, since we have to have a chance for hope and a way to defeat the virus, Mattie and Boy Band guy try to find Zeigler, who Josh was in contact with at the beginning. They think he has all the answers. So now we see how the city is deserted, which isn’t surprising since it had been foreshadowed for so long. As I said, in the original, we stayed very much with our main characters, and when we finally saw the city was deserted, it was really shocking, and quite a revelation; we’re not just talking about a few people, we’re talking about the very breakup of society and the end of the world. It was one of my favorite things about the original. Here it’s not that much of a shock. They find Zeigler, and he unleashes a BUTTLOAD of exposition: they were doing some computer shit and found a bunch of “frequencies we didn’t even know existed,” and one of them is apparently DEAD-FM. The dead are seeping into our world, and sapping our “will to live.” The red tape is the only thing with the properties to keep them out. Josh was working on a virus to reverse the whole thing, but they have to get down to the computer lab to put it in the system, and this is ghost central.

So Mattie and mister Boy Band go to the basement, where they are chased by ghosts, and Mattie almost gets her will to live sucked out. If you watch carefully, you can see Boy Band actually PUSH her will to live back into her with his hand. Could someone please push my will to live back into me? And while you’re at it, please push a sense of hope and optimism as well? Thanks. Anyway, so BB uploads the virus, and it works! For like three seconds. So they flee.

We have previously heard that “you’re safe in the dead zones. Places with no computer, cell service or wi-fi.” So they take off to the rolling hills of rural Ohio [SO not accurate… as someone who grew up in Michigan, I can assure you that Ohio is as flat as Paris. Hilton, that is]. They hear on the radio that you have to get rid of your cell phone, so of course the first thing Mattie does is open up her cell phone. They also chose to sleep under giant electrical towers, by the way. They are attacked by ghosts, and finally make it to the human encampments that are in a “dead zone.” We then have some ending voice-over about how “what was meant to connect us to each other connected us to worlds we were never meant to find.” The end.

The main difference here [aside from how obvious and in-your-face everything is] is a fundamental change in the focus and point of the movie. In the Japanese version, it was the loneliness and social isolation that all the electronic gadgets were a symptom of that turned people into ghosts. It was a potent metaphor; people’s loneliness actually turned them into ghosts, and the ghosts spread through the devices that contributed to the social isolation in the first place. Therefore, it was the gadgets and the technologies themselves that were the problem. Here the gadgets are no problem, it’s just that we’ve tapped into a bad frequency, and THAT is the issue. For all the loving product placement for technology this film takes advantage of, I guess we can hardly expect it to come out and say that technology itself is bad. And really, Americans cannot be shown ANYTHING that might be seen as discouraging sales. Remember how right after 9/11 we were told that if people stop shopping the whole fabric of American society would crumble? You know how the ONLY solutions to global warming that President Bush is willing to consider are those that can be accomplished by new technology? Technology that will boost the economy? So clearly, a message that consumer products which are a cornerstone of our economy might not be entirely good CANNOT be uttered in the land of the free! The entire idea that teenagers are going to part with their cell phones and Internet because of some shitty low-grade horror movie just underscores how apparently important it is that any anti-technology message be suppressed. The sheer number of people in my audience checking their cell phones for any urgent messages that may have come in while they were at the movies seems to weigh toward the idea that we need not worry.

As I said, in the original, the breakdown of society was handled as quite an effective surprise. In a way, it was like a zombie movie, where you find things are going badly in your backyard, then find out it’s happening through all of society. When the plane crashes at the end of the original, it’s a “Holy Shit!” moment, where you realize that the world is truly fucked. Here it just kind of happens and has no impact. This movie also ends with a note of hope for humanity, whereas the original left us with much darker prospects. I do have to give the remake credit for going as far as it did in [SPOILER!] leaving us with a society that is reduced to living in ragtag shanty towns in rural areas. It could have had the virus work and everything go back to normal [END SPOILER!]. So I guess we should be happy for this small gesture toward the events in this movie having actual consequences.

Poor Kristen Bell picked the wrong movie to make her post-Veronica Mars debut in. It’s too bad, because she projects such canny intelligence on Veronica Mars, but here she is hampered by trying to make the lame lines of the script plausible, and it comes out the worse for her. It’s a little disturbing to see an actress of her promise and intelligence [she was quite an electrifying presence during her short scenes in Mamet’s Spartan, too] having to show her tits on the cover of Maxim and the like. Well, next time, Kristen. We’ll keep on pulling for you. Christina Milian is no worse than anyone else in most movies. The rest of the cast is quite generic and are unable to rise above the script and direction.

As a movie you might want to see, this movie is not as bad as the fact that it was delayed several times and that there were no screenings for critics would lead you to believe. It’s also not that great. Despite that obvious studio shill Earl Dittman says in his blurb: “Like no horror movie you’ve ever seen before or ever will see!” this movie is completely generic and all of the genuine creepiness of the original has been removed, leaving it just a tepid thrill machine in the vein of most low-rent horror movies lately. If you’re totally bored there are worse things you could see, but unless you’ve seen the original and are interested in how they fucked it up, there really is no reason to sit through this.

Should you watch it: 

Not unless you’ve seen the original and want to compare, or are totally bored or desperate.
PULSE [JAPANESE VERSION] is the original of this film, and is much slower, but also much more creepy and genuinely unnerving.
PULSE [1998] shares nothing in common with either of these movies except the name, but posits that evil electricity might team with plumbing to unleash a horrid world not safe for families!