Japanese horror, particularly during the aughts, set a high bar for horror movie creepiness. In the late 1990s, Hideo Nakata and Takashi Miike gave us Ringu and Audition, respectively. Only a few years later, Nakata followed up Ringu with one of the better supernatural horror movies that decade – Dark Water. Like Nakata’s Ringu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo – or Pulse – uses technology and its role in our lives as its source of horror. Critics were impressed with Pulse and horror fans have embraced it as a classic of the genre. Not surprisingly, Hollywood recycled Kurosawa’s movie several years later as part of the brief Western fascination with J-horror. The 2006 US version of Pulse failed to impress anyone.
Pulse an Atmospheric, Unwinding Nightmare That Leaves You Chilled
If shocking, transgressive violence characterized Takashi Miike’s movies, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse diverges with a more implicit genre take. Audiences will find little in the way of gore or explicit horror. No jump scares or sudden shocks. On the contrary, Kurosawa directs his story as an unfolding nightmare – it’s slow and lingers quietly on haunting images. And Pulse finds ways to make the shocking feel both benign and haunting. Shadowy figures behind plastic tarps and Internet ghosts look like they’re moving underwater. There’s none of the jerky body motions of The Grudge’s ghosts. Kurosawa films a woman jumping from a water tower to her death in such a matter-of-fact way that it nags at you long after the scene has passed. Everything about the movie is characterized by a quiet restraint.
…Kurosawa directs his story as an unfolding nightmare – it’s slow and lingers quietly on haunting images.
While it’s restrained and abstains from overt horror, Kurosawa’s storytelling hare as a lot in common with Italian Giallo horror movies. Similar to Suspiria, a hazy logic characterizes Pulse’s story. Not everything about the plot makes absolute sense. There’s elements of surrealist horror, like Phantasm, in Pulse’s narrative. But there’s also a compelling subtext on the role of technology and the Internet in our lives. With its dreamlike atmosphere and focus on characters, Pulse poses an interesting juxtaposition of how something intended to bring us closer can take over our lives and isolate us. Even if the technology at the heart of the movie has changed, Kurosawa’s themes have only become more relevant.
Pulse Remake Loses Something in Translation
Gore Verbinski’s The Ring remake stands on its own as excellent horror movie. And The Grudge is passable, if not unremarkable. Aside from these examples, American updates of Japanese horror have been forgettable. Sadly, Pulse illustrates a common problem with Western remakes of J-horror. Wes Craven and Rick Wright’s (The Crazies) screenplay gets the premise, but bungles Kurosawa’s subtext. To some extent, the Pulse remake does in fact tackle the idea of social isolation and the Internet. But it’s a superficial treatment of the theme. What time is spent exploring these ideas tends to be heavy-handed. That is, there’s less focus on characters and mood to advance ideas. Instead, Pulse leans on expository dialogue that explains far too much. Kurosawa’s original works precisely because it doesn’t bog itself down in details. As the 2006 Pulse explains – with more focus on the growing global crisis – the concept feels almost silly.
Instead, Pulse leans on expository dialogue that explains far too much.
Like its treatment of Kurosawa’s original story, the Pulse remake misses what made the 2002 so effectively creepy. Even as director Jim Sonzero re-creates exact scenes and images from the source material, the remake feels oddly hollow. In part, this stems from Sonzero’s over-reliance on tired horror cliches at at the expense of atmosphere and mood. Specifically, the 2006 Pulse uses a shock-and-awe approach. In addition to an intrusive music score, Sonzero bombards audiences with loud noises and in-your-face imagery. Most of these scares land with a dull thud. Oftentimes the Pulse remake feels like it’s rushing through the original movie’s highlights. Expect little in the way of at or phase, mood, or tension. And Sonzero wastes what’s a talented cast. Kristen Bell has an abundance of charisma, none of which shines through in her underwritten role.
Pulse Remake Hits Alt-Ctrl-Del on US Remakes of J-Horror
Ultimately, there’s not much to say about the 2006 Pulse remake. It’s a forgettable attempt to replicate the creepy success of the vastly superior, 2001 Kairo. Despite keeping the basic story intact, the American remake has a poor understanding of Kurosawa’s bigger ideas. And the remake insists on loud scares and jarring pacing in place of patient, atmospheric story-telling. Today, horror fans consider the 2001 Pulse to be among the best of aught’s Japanese horror. In contrast, the Pulse remake joins several generic PG-13 aughts horror movies that includes The Fog remake, Darkness Falls, and The Unborn.