Kristen Bell (Mattie), Ian Somerhalder (Dexter), Christina Milian (Isabelle Fuentes), Rick Gonzalez (Stone), Jonathan Tucker (Josh), Samm Levine (Tim), Octavia Spencer (Landlady), Kel O’Neill (Douglas Zeiglar), Ron Rifkin (Doctor Waterson), Brad Dourif (Thin Bookish Guy)
“It was a telecom project! It was my baby. It was super-wide band. We found frequencies that we didn’t even know existed, and they came through.” – Douglas Zeigler.
Remakes always have a hard time getting a fair chance at being liked, but few had as many things going against them as 2006’s Pulse. Right out the gate, Pulse is a remake of Kairo which was only 5 years older and though that wasn’t as insufferable in 2006 as it is now, it was still troubling.
No matter how good or bad the movie might be, it was always going to fall under the shadow of its predecessor and you may be saying “well then it shouldn’t have been remade” and you’d be right but the facts are this: Kairo left a lot of things unexplored and it had genuine and stark flaws that could theoretically be repaired with a remake. There’s also a lot to explore with a concept like this and while it would be very hard for a movie to be as arrestingly creepy as Kairo, it could still succeed on his own. Unfortunately the Weinsteins were behind this and the script was co-written by Wes Craven so things did not bode well.
Pulse’s biggest flaw and greatest sin is that it is a Dimension film. Everything you hate about Dimension movies is on display here: slick blue-filtered cinematography? Check. Trite and overdone “scary” tricks? Oh you bet. Cast composed of actors that don’t belong in a horror movie? Absolutely. Are all the women in the cast under forty sporting a lot of bare midriffs and shoulders rubbed up with glycerine so they look like they’ve been doing jumping jacks in a sauna prior to the scene? Yes. Are any of the characters relateable or particularly likable? Of course not!
Our protagonist Mattie (Kristen Bell) goes to check on her boyfriend Josh, who hasn’t been around for a few days, when she gets to the apartment he greets her seeming depressed and tired. As Mattie investigates a closet to find an emaciated and bloody cat-puppet, Josh hangs himself. A few days later, during an IM session with her Burger King Kids Club approved group of people-who-would-never-be-friends-in-real-life-but-are-because-we-have-to-have-archetypes (Christina Milian as sassy over-sexed black girl sidekick/roommate Izzy, Samm Levine as mildly creepy nerdy white kid with a crush on our heroine Tim, and under-appreciated character actor Rick Gonzalez as ethnically-vague stoner/hacker Stone) she gets a message from Josh’s computer saying “Help me!” over and over again.
Tim thinks it has to be a virus and that all Mattie needs to do is go back and unplug it but Mattie literally can’t even so she sends along Stone because he is, statistically speaking, the most likely person in this group to die first. Stone creeps into Josh’s room through the transom above his door and finds that his computer isn’t even there, he then finds a room with red tape on the door and sees the wobbly slow-mo ghost from Kairo come at him. Unfortunately this bit of welcome familiarity is ruined when, during the ghost’s trademark creepy stumble, she just glitches out and appears several steps ahead of where she was last seen walking normally. The ghost then grabs Stone and he has the soul literally sucked from his body, because fuck subtlety.
Naturally the messages don’t stop and Stone won’t answer the phone so Mattie goes to Josh’s apartment to see his landlady (Octavia Spencer in a performance that strongly conveys that she really needed to make rent that month) cleaning the place out. It turns out that she sold his computer to some smoldering cool-guy potential love interest named Dexter (played by Lost’s Ian Somerhalder.) Mattie finds Dexter working on his car sexilly and tells him to stop pranking her using Josh’s computer, but he opens his trunk to reveal that he hasn’t even plugged it in because he’s too busy being awesome to do things in a prompt manner.
After Mattie leaves, Dexter takes his new PC into the NCIS set he lives in and plugs it in where it automatically logs onto a site of depressed people staring at him and the message “Would you like to meet a ghost?” Meanwhile Mattie gets home to find a package from Josh containing three rolls of red tape and a note that says that it will protect them. He doesn’t explain what it will protect them from or why they need it because he understands that it would spoil the tension if his girlfriend actually knew what was happening.
Dexter tells Mattie to come back to his place so he can show her the creepy website and the more helpfully expository, but still frustratingly vague, video logs that he found on Josh’s hard drive. They get the name Douglas Zeigler off the drives while every single other character in this movie no matter how insignificant gets ghosted. When discussing the situation in a diner, Dexter tells Mattie that ghosts coming through Wi-Fi is fucking stupid and a weird old man played by Brad Dourif goes on a rant about how we put all sorts of information out in the air and it’s not safe and some goth girl calls him a drunk.
Things go really bad really fast and Dexter and Mattie rush to find the epicenter of the ghost invasion so they can implant a virus written by Josh to stop the ghostpocalypse and save the internet.
Kristen Bell is a talented, versatile, and charming actress but you wouldn’t know it to watch this movie! It goes for the whole cast actually, Rick Gonzalez is more wasted than usual, Octavia Spencer is normally an excellent actress, and as thankless Brad Dourif roles go this is somewhere between his red-herring character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that time that Chucky was on Saturday Night Live. Nobody is given much to work with and a lot of the actors don’t seem terribly invested.
Finishing Kairo and starting up Pulse was cringe-worthy and awful, never have this movie’s flaws showed so starkly. The outright wrongness of the movie stuck out like a sore thumb as the characters acted vapid and annoying and set-pieces from the original showed up in a tone-deaf way that showed that nobody involved understood why they worked so well in the first place. Characters that were not terribly deep in the original felt positively lived-in compared to these. . . things. Yet, around the midway point I found my disgust waning and I started to remember why I liked this movie in the first place when I saw it in theaters.
I know I just tore this movie up one side and down another but I’m gonna walk this back a bit. The thing with remakes is, they shouldn’t be compared to the original. I know that it seems a natural idea to compare the two (or three or more) versions but it’s an unfair thing to do. A remake is its own thing and a movie should always be judged on its own merit, which is admittedly really hard when you watch a movie and its remake back to back so you can get two reviews up in a small amount of time.
Pulse is a dogshit remake of Kairo, but it’s one of the better Dimension films and not all of the comparisons are even bad. While the movie was laid onto the skeleton of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film, it has an entirely different set of priorities and though it has a host of problems all its own it fixes a lot of the issues I had with Kurosawa’s movie. The first smart move it makes is combining the two stories rather than having them meet in the third act. Mattie is essentially a combination of Harue and Michi which trims all the fat off both sides of the story.
The second smart move is in the explanation, which is to say that it has one: Douglas Zeigler’s telecom project tapped into the frequencies that the dead live in which is a well-explored phenomenon amongst the paranormal investigative field in the real world (watch White Noise for a deeper explanation as well as the most scared you’re ever going to be while bored out of your skull) and the explanation of the red tape is that the color red blocks their frequencies (it still fails to explain how intangible beings are stopped by simply sealing doors and windows of a room but it’s something), it helps that Zeigler’s red-tape fortress is a very visually arresting set to appear late in the movie.
Even some of the movie’s mistakes turn out to be secret boons. The computer virus sub-plot is trite and stupid but it pays off wonderfully when a stupid longshot plan that obviously won’t work actually doesn’t work, that’s positively subversive for this type of movie. And the generic tween horror film atmosphere sets up for a delightful tonal shift when things go full apocalyptic in the last third of the film, making the change seem far more jarring than it should.
The ghosts look more overtly creepy which is better and worse as they appear scarier but it sort of cheapens the impact, the same with the soul-sucking effect. And while the motivation behind the ghosts is nowhere near as disturbing or interesting as the original, the new hook is pretty solid: the dead hate the living and rather than just killing them they take away their will to live so that they’ll have nothing to live for even if they don’t want to die.
That said, the movie really should end about ten minutes before it actually does. There is a really stupid “one more scare” scene at the end that is everything that’s wrong with mainstream American horror. It’s just the worst.
All of the criticisms leveled at Pulse are fair, but taken as its own thing it manages to be a moderately successful movie if an atrocious-bordering-on-sacrilegious remake. If you can do your best to avoid unfavorable comparisons and choke down the shallow opening and dumb epilogue you’ll find that there is an above average horror movie there. Pulse isn’t the greatest thing ever made, but it’s not deserving of all the hatred that gets sent its way.
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