Monday, 11 September 2006

Pulse (2006)

"Hello, Tech support? There’s a ghost in my machine." Actually, make that an entire army of ghosts, leaping out of emails, LCD computer monitors (Philips), cell phones (Motorola Razrs), wifi network, the television – anything that apparently requires electricity or a broadcast frequency. Strangely enough, if you cover your doors and windows with red construction tape, this will stop them from popping out from your walls. Together with that minor incoherent implausibility, this is the premise of 2001 Japanese horror flick Kairo and its US remake, Pulse.

You know the joke by now. Hollywood executives are enamoured by J-Horror cinema, but always end up butchering the genre in their remakes. I am somewhat happy to announce that Pulse is a decent adaptation, trading some improvements over the original with some silly misses. In other words, the two movies are almost on par with each other.

For one, this is the first serious Hollywood attempt to remake a Japanese horror film. You’ll notice the desaturated colours and the vaguely blue-green filters, and the very understated, very creepy, mostly-ambient soundtrack. How about the pale, flickering phantoms who probably have an official permit from the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the creepy blurred out phantom face that stars at you from a monitor, then moves in closer and closer, till you can almost see its features? The surprise is not just that American filmmakers have finally duplicated the J-Horror look down to a pat, but that the producers of Pulse have made a film that hews closer to the J-Horror aesthetic than Kairo. For instance, the original had a fairly intrusive and over the top soundtrack, with an operatic female solo vocalising over a string section, and lacked the desaturated colour scheme of The Ring.

At the same time, we cannot expect and respect a remake to be a carbon copy of the original. Sonzero, Ray Wright and Wes Craven have therefore added a twofold change in Pulse. As the social isolation and existential loneliness of Japanese youth do not have easy analogues in US society, the filmmakers throw a curve ball by leveraging on the even more wired, technology savvy, can’t live without a cell phone/Blackberry/email/personal blog/messaging client worldview of 2006. The turn towards science fiction instead of spirituality as an explanation for the ghostly phenomena is a trick taken from the latter Ringgu series, which makes the proceedings feel somewhat more believable than the original. That several key scenes and gimmicks from Kairo successfully made the leap despite the adaptation and the reworked premise is a testament to the ability of the writing team.

Their second move is to blend the J-Horror aesthetic with the sensibility of the typical Hollywood horror movie. With the help of generous CGI, the understated, often faceless menace of the phantom figures in the original is ramped up to visceral levels. Yes, Pulse may have bald phantoms with kabuki white powder (not present in the original, surprisingly), but where the J-Horror manual advises the filmmaker to obscure their faces, Sonzero makes the interesting choice to turn the shadowy immaterial phantoms into ghouls out of Halloween. Everything, from the phantoms, their appearances in mirrors and their doomed victims, is given the Tales from the Crypt style makeover. J-Horror purists will no doubt cry for blood over this awkward mixing of horror styles. Sensible horror fans will end up scratching their heads over the unfamiliar stylistic blending.

Compared to Kairo, Pulse has a more compact and coherent script, with a more plausible explanation (though only less improbable) of the ghosts. Most flaws in the plot are in fact due to the writers' remarkable faithfulness to the original movie, which if you may guess, wasn't the poster boy for J-Horror cinema. Either way, Pulse is a decent horror film that is worth watching even if you have seen the original. And if you haven’t, Pulse is certainly a must-watch, a rare and solitary example of how horror can be realistically pulled off without resorting to gore and empty scare tactics that have almost destroyed the credibility of recent American efforts.

First published at incinemas on 14 September 2006

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