directed by Jim Sonzero
(Weinstein, 2006)

The problem with Pulse is that it's not very scary.

This high-tech ghost story, which has spirits of the dead living in the Internet, PDAs and cell phone signals, boasts plenty of the scratchy, unfocused and jittery cinematography that brought the undead world to life in movies from Thirteen Ghosts to The Grudge and The Ring. (Like the latter two films, Pulse is also based on a Japanese original, 2001's Kairo.) But visually, this flick shoots itself in the foot by overusing the blue filter on its cameras; filmmakers might have thought it created "atmosphere" for the story, but it was more distracting than effective. (Ironically, my wife -- who is easily frightened by horror movies -- said the blue filter was "soothing" to her eyes.)

The movie stars Kristen Bell as Mattie Webber, a college student who is constantly networked with her friends by e-mail, instant message and cell phone. What might seem convenient to some (obsessive to others) turns sour when one of her friends hacks into a software developer's hard drive and unleashes some extradimensional link to another level of existence. The dead who inhabit that dimension seem to have nothing better to do than reach into this one and steal the will to live from networked mortals. (What they do with it remains a mystery; they derive no pleasure or sustenance from it that I can see.) Those poor mortals, meanwhile, drift through an aimless fog for a day or two, then either kill themselves or, if they can't work up the energy, vanish into a puff of soot. (Why? Dunno.)

Initially, the spirits manifest through computer monitors; later, any reflective surface seems possible. By the time one fiend crawls from a dryer in the dorm laundry, you stop looking for the logic behind it all. (And yet, I still can't help but wonder about the inconsistencies in the phantoms' tangibility; they pass through solid objects, but you can punch them.)

Pulse is erratic, numbingly slow at times and hyperactive at others. It all winds to a conclusion that, not to mince words, sucks.

The acting is a mixed bag. Bell is the only real "name" in the bunch, and she does what she can with the material, although it's hard not to think she was working with a role written for Sarah Michelle Gellar; reports indicate Kirsten Dunst was in the running for a time. The others are pretty bland (in their defense, the script seems to demand it), although a few -- Kel O'Neill as programmer Douglas Zieglar springs to mind -- are really, really bad.

It's a current Hollywood trend to remake Japanese horror films for American audiences. But a key rule of remakes, far too often ignored, is that if you can't improve on it in some way, don't bother doing it at all. Pulse should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

by Tom Knapp
6 January 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.