The characters in Pulse are being stalked by spirits from another dimension, but they ought to be worried about being trapped in a bad horror movie. Every time something scary is about to happen, lights start flickering, weird shadows begin darting around, and bizarre screeching noises can be heard. There must not be a lot of originality in the afterlife since spirits in almost all horror movies do the exact same thing. Or maybe it’s just that Pulse is a lesson in Horror Filmmaking 101 – a generic, uninspired slog through just about every single genre cliché ever committed to celluloid.
Kristin Bell (TV’s “Veronica Mars”) plays Maddie Webber, a college psychology student whose on-again/off-again boyfriend Josh has been hiding in his apartment. She goes over to see if he’s okay. To say that Josh looks like hell would be a compliment. It’s clear that he’s more than just hung over. He mutters a few incomprehensible things, then goes into the back room to hang himself. After his death, Maddie and her friends continue to get Instant Messages from him on their computers. Assuming that his computer has a virus and was left on (and that the cops didn’t find it, and that his parents didn’t come for his belongings) Maddie convinces pal Stone (Rick Gonzalez) to go over to check things out. Then he too starts behaving weird, holing himself up in his room and acting freaky.
Maddie goes to check Josh’s computer herself and finds it has been sold to a guy named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder). But since he has never plugged it in, the continuing messages can’t be from him. Soon, Maddie’s other friends, Tim (Samm Levine) and Izzie (Christina Milian), start seeing apparitions too. They discover that sealing doors and windows with utility tape keeps the spirits out. (You read that right. I did not make it up.) One of them is even nice enough to hide in a dorm dryer and throw Izzie’s clothes out onto the floor. That’ll show her!
Meanwhile, Dexter and Maddie discover that the spirits are coming through electronic equipment such as computers, cell phones, and blackberries. Who tells them this? Yet another horror movie cliché – the sputtering, paranoid, half-mad guy who accidentally unleashed them on the world. In this case, he’s played by Kel O’Neill, who apparently never met a piece of scenery he didn’t enjoy chewing.
Pulse is the latest in a line of Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films, which focus more on nightmarish imagery than blood and gore. (This one is a remake of Kairo). The J-horror films are not always known for their strong plots. Instead, they’re more about tone and atmosphere. That quality doesn’t quite translate to American cinema, where we generally like to have some idea of what’s going on. Pulse definitely suffers from too little exposition. I never quite understood what the spirits were or where the came from. A much better remake - The Ring - didn’t explain a lot either, but it at least established its central premise up front: Watch videotape and die seven days later. The genesis of that tape never added up, but the ground rules were clear enough to generate some suspense.
Pulse misses that part altogether. What little explanation we get comes near the end, when it’s too late to make us care about what has already happened. Therefore, it fails to create any real feeling of dread or impending doom. Late in the movie, we are told that the spirits have taken over the world, leaving empty streets as humans either evacuate or are killed. That can be a creepy thought (see 28 Days Later for proof), but the filmmaking here is so lazy that you never for a second believe there’s been any real threat to humanity. They threw some litter in the streets and lit a car on fire. That’s about as much indication as you get.
To be fair, Pulse does have some disturbing imagery. The visual effects are quite good during those scenes where the spirits pop out to suck someone’s soul or perform a contortion act on the floor. All these moments fit nicely into a 30-second TV spot, creating the impression that this is one freaky time at the movies. Really, though, you’re seeing all the good parts nicely condensed into one tiny package. Everything else is too non-sensical, too dull, and too tame.
In the comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, there was a running joke about co-star Ben Affleck being “the bomb in Phantoms.” It was a sarcastic reference to the fact that the actor took an early gig in a terrible horror movie that didn’t let him showcase his talents. Poor Kristin Bell is experiencing the same thing here. Most people agree that she’s an up-and-coming star, but this picture doesn’t do her any favors. Let’s hope that in a few years there will be a new joke: “Kristin Bell – she was the bomb in Pulse.”
( 1/2 out of four)
Pulse is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi terror, disturbing images, language, sensuality and thematic material. . The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
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