Saturday, October 27, 2012

31 Horrors: Pulse (#15)

Wherein I attempt to watch 31 horror films over the course of October. 31 horror films that I have never seen before, from obscure to acclaimed classics. We'll see how well I go in actually finding the time to watch and then write about them in some way.

No not the Japanese one

This is the 1988 electro-horror-sci-fi-thing that came from writer/director Paul Golding whose only previous directorial credit was for a short film called Herbie (not related to the famous family movie of the same name) in 1966 that he co-directed alongside George Lucas. 22 years between films and he then never directed again. In 1984, however, he did write a personal favourite of mine - the east coast hip-hop musical, Beat Street. What an odd footnote of a career he has. He doesn't even have a Wikipedia page! Pulse, then, rates as his only feature film as a director and it's curious why he never went on to make anything else given he's hardly the most incompetent director you'll ever come across. Oh well.

Pulse actually does share basic similarities with the more well known 2001 Japanese title (and its 2006 American remake) in that it involves people being plagued by the horrors of modern technology. In this case it's good ol' fashioned electricity that's the villain after the grid of one particular neighbourhood is infected with a (to quote the film's Wikipedia entry) "malevolent, paranormal intelligence" that fries your garden grass and sends out flares of electric activity that eventually traps the home owners inside by manipulating people's overly protective existences (security systems, bars on windows, mechanical devices of various kids). It's actually an intriguing concept, and I think it's safe to say that Paul Golding was coming at it from a socially conscious place, trying to say something about our modern day existences being very much ruled by machinery. In that respect it's still a very topical film and one that could very easily be remade today with a simple update of technology (and even then, there really isn't all that much in the film that dates it all that terribly - a prevalence of electricity towers won't vanish for some time yet).

That being said, Pulse doesn't always work. Golding does indeed get some great mileage out of his close-ups of melting outlets and firing circuit boards, as well as turning those creaks and groans that we hear throughout the night - personally, the sound of the back of my TV creaking as it contracts between warm and cool temperature drives me batty - into a very literal, menacing threat. The creak of a staircase or the hollow breeze of a central air conditioning unit taking the place of zombies, ghosts, and serial killers if you will. Frustratingly though Pulse doesn't quite take the concept far enough on occasion and the logic behind the hows and the whys goes more or less unresolved. Perhaps as a result of its limited cast - only three major characters - it's not until the second half where things start to get truly interesting, especially with a nifty twist on the concept of a tired shower death scene, and some wonderfully playful bits and pieces throughout the big climax (loved the screw in the basement bit, didn't you?)

The lead character, a young boy played by - oh HAH! - Joey Lawrence, is quite annoying as a these sorta things go. Trying to convince your family (CLIFF DE YOUNG! ROXANNE HART!) that the electricity's evil is tricky, and being this annoying whilst doing so isn't going to help. I liked the idea of the stepmother actually being the more sympathetic of the kid's two parental figures, but the father is a bit dim, isn't he? I know in real life it'd be darn hard to convince anybody that electricity is evil, but this is a film and it shouldn't take so long for him to cotton on. Or, maybe while he's coming around to the idea, something could happen besides innocuous heating systems firing up in the middle of the night. That stuff was all a bit ho-hum, really.

Curiously, Golding appears to have cribbed some of the style - typeface, score, general aesthetic mood - from The Terminator and A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's odd to be watching a scene and feeling as if they are using Charles Burnstein's actual Elm Street score rather than just a cheap knock off (by Jay Ferguson if you really want to know). It makes sense though that those two films should so immediately come to mind since the former is very much about technology turned bad, whereas the latter is about American suburbia being plagued by something that something that has been turned on its head and become evil. The film I thought Pulse would work best with on a double feature, however, was Wes Craven's Shocker. Electricity was having a rough couple of years of it in the late 1980s, wasn't it? If you want to branch out, you could say Todd Haynes' [safe] resides in the same place, with its lead character (Julianne Moore) allergic to the modern world.

I eventually came to enjoy Pulse quite a bit. I think the second half really makes up for the too uneventful opening half (although I admire that part of the film in how it sets up this Americana suburbia that, even without the threat of electrical death, has an unknowing menace to it). Curious points come from watching this just days after Paranormal Activity 4, both of which feature sequences in which the young protagonist gets trapped in a car garage by a mysterious force and nearly dies due to toxic gases and can only escape by reversing the car into the faulty garage door. Hmmm.

As a matter of fact, it's probably the end credits that I'd rank as Pulse's best and most interesting scene. As the cast and crew's names come and go on the screen, the backdrop plays a revolving set of imagery that becomes increasingly unclear. Are they circuit boards of city streets? The ominous music and the vague, beautifully photographed imagery adds a final kick to what was an already rather interesting film that was well worth the watch. B

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