Has modern technology ruined the horror movie? As a child of the '80s, I wistfully remember a time when you could still get caught in the woods, chased half-naked by a guy in a hockey mask, with no cell phone handy to bail you out. But not today's kids. With their Sidekicks always at their side, salvation is never realistically further away than a 411 call to Sprint. So it was with some excitement that I greeted the news of 'Pulse,' a horror movie billed as a cautionary tale against teens becoming too reliant on their rapidly-evolving technology. Finally, I thought, these obnoxious, uber-hip Gen-Y'ers would finally get what's coming to them.
Alas, 'Pulse' turns out to be such a lame, half-assed pastiche of every other, better horror movie of the last ten years that the only thing scary about it is that it actually got past the script stage. Admittedly, the film's concept had some promise. After her hacker boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) mysteriously hangs himself, young college student Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell from 'Veronica Mars') begins receiving strange emails from her recently-deceased ex, apparently from beyond the grave. Soon, bizarre, ghostly apparitions start to invade Mattie's dreams, and her friends also begin to commit suicide one by one. With no one to believe her growing suspicions that something is not quite right in Yahoo-land, she enlists the aid of mysterious loner Dexter McCarthy (Ian Somerhalder), who had the misfortune of buying Josh's old computer. Together, they discover that he was involved in a computer experiment gone awry, and somehow, the dead who live on the "second plane of existence" can now cross over to our world. And these spiritual vampires don't just want to play with our Ouija boards -- they want to taste life again, even if it means sudden death for their unlucky hosts.
Are you following all of this? 'Pulse' cribs so many ideas from other movies that it is like a laundry list of cinematic thievery. See if you can count the homages, allusions and blatant lifts of 'The Ring,' 'White Noise,' 'Silent Hill,' 'The Grudge,' 'Stay Alive,' 'When a Stranger Calls' and, of course, 'Scream.' That the script for 'Pulse' was originally co-written by Wes Craven only adds to the incredulity of the enterprise. I don't know how much the story changed after he departed the project, but it is hard to imagine anyone could have saved such a derivative mishmash. And though based on yet another Japanese horror property, the 2001 cult thriller 'Kairo,' 'Pulse' has been so tarted up with boring MTV visuals and overloaded with special effects that the well-plotted, slow-paced chills of the original have been completely obliterated. Chalk up another one for our friends in the East.
I suppose what annoyed me the most about 'Pulse' is its lack of purpose. I've always felt that the best horror films exploit a specific fear, and stay absolutely focused on the inner emotional journey of its main characters. But 'Pulse' is so all over the map that it never seems sure of what kind of scares it hopes to generate. Is it about our fear of technology? The pain of so losing one's identity that suicide becomes the only answer? The horror of our bodies in revolt? Or does it just want to be a good CGI monster show? Any one of these would have been fine, but instead, after watching scene after scene of 'Grudge'-like zombie people crawling out of TVs, and Bell and Somerhalder staring blankly at their computer screens, the only thing I was left afraid of was electricity. If, as the ending of 'Pulse' suggests, the only hope for humanity is for us to turn our backs on technology, the same goes for horror fans who might hope to save the genre -- they can turn off their HD DVD players, and just say no to 'Pulse.'
'Pulse' hits HD DVD in a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. This is a tough one to judge, because even by modern horror movie standards, this movie looks like a music video run amok. Quality of this transfer aside, the look of the movie is so processed -- not a single shot looks remotely realistic -- that it is downright distracting. You know there is problem with a movie when you don't even enjoy the experience of simply looking at it.
Technically, however, the Weinstein Co. has delivered a solid transfer. This is a very dark film, and blacks are quite deep. Occasionally, the heavy use of filtering leaves some of the shadows looking a bit less than perfect, but I'll chalk that up as the film's intended style. Colors are intentionally muted, with pale blues, puke greens and ugly yellows the primary hues. Only a thematic use of deep red -- red tape, red walls, red lights -- jumps off the screen. However, due to all the extensive image processing there is a thin but ever-present veil of noise throughout. Though not terribly intrusive, it does dull detail a bit. Still, I'm going to give this one four stars, because though out of the box it is not likely to blow anyone away, it does seem to be more or less representative of how the filmmakers wanted their movie to look.
Though labeled only as "Dolby 5.1" on the back of the box, 'Pulse gets a full-on Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Why the Weinstein company would decide to virtually hide such a nice selling point (as they also did on 'Clerks II') is a head-scratcher.
Unfortunately, despite the lossless mix, I thought the film's sound design was just okay. For a movie about technology, I expected a lot more eerie ambience. Where's the ominous static, the low bass tones, the doors creaking in the surrounds? Alas, aside from the typical shock stingers (yawn -- wasn't this stuff already passe ten years ago?), the rears lacked heft for me. Even the film's forgettable score and pop/rock songs sounded muddy and flat. Low bass and dynamics are also decent but not exceptional. Dialogue, however, was always intelligible, and well balanced in the mix. Not that you actually want to hear what any of the characters have to say.
'Pulse' hits HD DVD with a full spate of extras -- probably far more than it really deserves. However, a big thumbs up to the Weinstein Co. team, as all of the disc's video-based extras are presented in 16:9 widescreen 1080i video.
The overkill begins with two audio commentaries. The first track is with director Jim Sonzero and special makeup effects designer Gary Tunnicliffe; the second track features producers Mike Leahy and Joel Soisson, visual effects supervisor Kevin O'Neil, editor Kirk Morri, line producer Ron Vecchiarelli, and for comic relief, actor Sam Levine, who has a smaller part. I laughed loudly listening to both of these tracks -- at least as much of them as I could sit through. Sonzero seems completely deluded, thinking he has made some sort of piece of high art, and saying odd things about the film's "deep themes," "gritty urban performances" and how the film's laughably bad monsters-pop-out-of-the-dryer scene was the "one of the scariest things he'd ever seen." Oh, boy. I was almost grateful for the boring second track, because at least no one seemed quite as unaware that the movie they made is crap.
Next up are five Deleted Scenes and an Alternate Ending. The latter is a bit of a misrepresentation, and all of the scenes are actually either different versions of existing material, or so minor as to be incidental. Nothing to see here, kids, move along.
Better are the three featurettes, if only because they are short. "Creating the Fear" (8 min.) and "The Visual Effects of 'Pulse'" (6 min.) are your typical EPKs. More hilarity ensues, with cast and crew remarking about how "terrifying" and "complex" the story is. Whatever these folks were smoking, I want some. But best of all is "'Pulse' and the Paranormal" (5 min.), which culls together a few so-called "experts" on "electromagnetic energy," including the two crackpot hosts of that ridiculous Sci-Fi Channel "Ghost Hunters" show. Though I'm a sucker for the supernatural, I'm not so stupid as to believe a word any of these bozos might have to say.
Last and least is the film's original Theatrical Trailer, which apparently wasn't very effective at selling the movie as it tanked in theaters.
(Note, by the way, that the version of 'Pulse' here is the Unrated cut. However, the additional footage only rates a few mere seconds of gorier "Internet suicide" footage, so the film's runtime remains almost the same. Trust me, this extra gruel is hardly noticeable, and doesn't improve the film in the slightest.)
I am a huge fan and supporter of the horror film genre, so it pains me to say that you should avoid seeing 'Pulse' unless you are a masochist. This is a truly awful movie. On a purely technical level, however, this HD DVD release is quite solid -- a fine transfer, decent soundtrack and plenty of extras should please fans of the film. All two of you.