While a lot of Ringu knockoffs pulled directly from its aesthetics, not a lot of them were interested in its themes, IE the relationship between the technological future and the spiritual past. Oh sure, it was kind of there in One Missed Call, with the ghost possessing a cell phone, but it never felt much like exploring that. Which is, by my estimation, a bit of a shame. Part of what made Ringu so good, was its willingness to have a thematic underpinning, rather than just be a collection of scare scenes. Which is also why I think Pulse is one of the better J-Horror films to come out of that wave.
Watching Pulse requires a willingness to approach it in good faith. It’s not perfect, and not all of its flaws can be dismissed under the auspices of stylistic choices, but it’s an extremely unique and engaging piece of horror, and if you go into it with the right mindset, it’ll dig its hooks into your brain and never let go. It’s a weird, offbeat kind of horror, the kind that sticks with you, of the same mold as (although obviously not on the same level as) The Shining.
Take the ghosts for example. Much was made by other critics about the fact that they don’t really do anything, in the traditional sense. They don’t attack people or talk other people into committing suicide, they just act weird, in a Lynch-ian sort of way. But that’s one of the things that makes them so subtly disconcerting, from the weird way they never seem to be in focus on film, or the offputting way they move. It sells the ghosts as entirely otherworldly, and you can almost understand why everyone who encounters them more or less immediately loses the will to live. It almost feels like cosmic horror: Confronted with the horror of something so unknowable, how can you go on?
The film adds onto this with a sense of existential loneliness, that pervades every frame of the film, even before the ghost business kicks into overdrive. The characters seem to orbit each other rather than have relationships, and the ghosts attempts to exploit that is explicit text. I think one of my favorite scenes of the film is when a character realizes there’s a ghost in the room with her, and rather than freak out, she rushes to embrace it, exclaiming that she’s “Not alone.”
That thematic underpinning, along with the clash between ghosts and technology (like in Ringu) helps get Pulse through a lot of its flaws. I mean, for starters, two hours is way too long for this movie (it could have lost 30 minutes easily) and the character work is mediocre at best. But those are minor issues compared to the things it does right; It’s probably my favorite movie I’ve reviewed this month. And for once, I’ve never actually seen the remake (at time of writing) so I’m looking forward to seeing how the American remake (which delayed the US release of the original film) turned out.
One of the more consistent things I’ve discovered in doing Remaketober is that what makes a scene, or even a movie, great isn’t easy to quantify. A lot of remakes I’ve seen have tried to copy scenes from the movie they’re remaking (one notable example just copied the entire film, shot for shot) and it never f**king works. Subtle changes in timing, framing, even lighting or placement within the larger movie can completely destroy a scene. I bring this up because Pulse is constantly reusing concepts and even entire scenes from the original film, and not one of them works even a 10th as well as in the original.
Part of this is a problem with pacing. The film is only 88 minutes long, so it’s ramming through every scene at a breakneck pace, which kills any semblance of keeping a deliberate pace. At one point they try to ape a famous sequence from the original, in which a ghost slowly and creepily walks at a character, but they cut it down from something like 2 minutes to 20 seconds, which means it’s barely had time to begin before it’s over. That’s a minor, but easily understood, example of how this remake completely f**ks up the original.
It also has exactly zero sense of subtly, either in its scare scenes or in its story. I made a special point of noting that the ghosts in the original never actually attack anyone, but that’s all they seem to do in the remake (it’s literally the first thing that happens). All of its original scenes are complete jokes (I literally burst out laughing at one involving, no joke, a bunch of wet laundry being thrown on the floor) and the film completely drops any of the original films ambiguity or bizarre ghost logic inherent in the original’s story. Towards the end of the film they start explaining how the whole thing came about, and the explanation is so bafflingly stupid that I couldn’t believe they actually went with it. I mean, they actually try to explain why the red tape keeps them out, attach an actual scientific explanation to it. Who the hell does that?
Pulse can’t reach the bottomless levels of awful that the One Missed Call remake hit: It doesn’t hit its story cliches quite as hard, there’s at least one effective-ish scene, even if it’s based around something completely stupid (IE, a dude getting sucked into a wall) and Kristen Bell, right in the middle of her Veronica Mars run, does some solid, if generic horror-girl, acting. But then, the original One Missed Call was only worthwhile as something of parody of J-Horror tropes: Pulse is a uniquely great film taken on its own merits, and the remake couldn’t have missed the mark harder if it was trying to. All the remake can really be is a shell of the original, stripped of its uniquness, thematic resonance and merit. And given that the plot is about people being drained of everything that made them people, that’s almost amusing on a meta-level.
Well that concludes yet another Remaketober. Next year I promise not to commit so strongly to a theme, so I can have a little variety in the horror movies I report on. Next week we’ll return to our irregularly scheduled reviews. Till next year, Happy Halloween.