Horror in the 1980s was all about the slasher - mindless monsters mutilating teenagers in desolate places. With Scream, released in 1996, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson stabbed the slasher in its cold, dead heart. Scream (and its numerous sequels and countless inspired-bys) satirized slasher films with a self-aware sarcastic mocking.
Around this same time, Americans first began discovering (and then remaking) Asian horror in general and Japanese horror in specific. These films neither relied on blood-filled violence (though certainly Japan has its fair share of gore maestros - the films of Takashi Miike come immediately to mind) nor winking satire. Rather, Japanese horror often relies on dark tones and eerie moods to scare their audiences. Where American horror often relies on jump scares to thrill, Japanese films tend to not make one scream in horror but fill you with an inner dread that stays with you long after the credits roll.
One of the more effecting Japanese horror films of this period is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. Made in 2001, it feels prescient in the way it foresaw our current social-media-soaked culture where everyone is connected to everyone but no one seems to be able to really connect.
Pulse is told in two parallel story lines that eventually connect together. The first finds Ryosuke (Haruhiko Katô), an undergraduate student who one day decides he wants to give this whole internet thing a try. He plugs in the software, enters in his information, and instead of getting mail, he finds himself connected to a strange website that shows him bizarre video of odd people in dark rooms doing perfectly mundane, but somehow really creepy activities. He quickly turns the computer off only to find that page has turned itself back on in the middle of the night. A pop-up asks him if he wants to see a ghost.
Later, he visits a computer lab where he meets Harue (Koyuki), a post-graduate computer science student who is intrigued by his story. Together, they delve deeper into the website finding more eerie videos of people covered by shadows in strange, dark rooms. Eventually, they discover a hidden room with its doors taped shut by red tape. Anyone who enters that room comes out filled with an existential dread, engulfed with loneliness. Many of them commit suicide.
The second story involves Kudo (Kumiko Aso) and Sasano Junko (Kurume Arisaka), who work at a plant shot. Slowly, the other employees begin disappearing. They too find computer screens with the same creepy images and a strange door with red tape.
Eventually, the two stories collide and together, the characters try to make sense of a world in which more and more people keep disappearing and more ghosts begin to appear.
Pulse is a film crawls under your covers, gets under your skin, and lingers with you through the dead of night. It's the existential dread that scares you, not little boogeymen jumping out of the shadows. Although there are shadows and sometimes, there are things lying within them. Kurosawa carefully composes his shots, often letting the camera linger, inviting the viewer to study every corner for something strange. The genius is that sometimes someone will appear and sometimes nothing will, leaving the audience in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Loneliness perpetuates the film. The characters wander through their stories never really connecting to anyone. Though it takes place in one of the world’s most populated cities, it seems very desolate. Characters are often alone in their rooms, or atop tall buildings overlooking a cold, gray skyline. One character, after visiting the forbidden room, notes that as a child she thought when you died you’d meet up with all of your loved ones, but now she fears it is an eternity spent alone. Hell is being alone forever.
As per usual, Arrow Video has done a fine job with this release. From the liner notes, it sounds as if they did not do the transfer themselves as it was “made available for this release”. But whatever, it looks good. This is a low-budget film with a lot of scenes shot with low lighting so there is a grain and dimness that permeates throughout, but I believe this is all intentional and not a flaw with this release. Audio likewise sounds good.
Extras are abundant, including a new interview with the director, another one with the cinematographer. Plus, a video appreciation, a new making-of documentary, and several archival featurettes.
Pulse is one of the better Japanese horror films to come out of the Extreme Asian cinema genre from a decade ago. Its horror will linger with you, creeping you out way past the credit roll.