Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, about dead souls spilling through the Internet, isn’t just scary, it’s primally disturbing. Its deadpan chills surpass the usual don’t-open-that-door genre clichés and tap into dream logic. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, The Shining, The Innocents, The Tenant and similarly subdued, circumspect, psychologically oriented shockers, it’s the kind of movie that is only intermittently scary while you’re watching it (it’s easy to make fun of), but gets scarier as you think about it later. Kurosawa dispenses with most of the clichéd elements we’ve come to expect from commercial horror (including the mandatory scene where a character explains the nature of the threat, a stock moment that’s amusingly parodied here) and instead dips into horror’s roiling emotional undercurrent: the dread that comes from contemplating death.
Completed in 2001, then bought and shelved by Miramax in preparation for an American remake that might never happen, Pulse unfolds in a technological context that’s frankly a bit dated now. Coworkers at a rooftop nursery try to get ahold of a co-worker named Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) who has a floppy disk that they need; one of the workers, Michi (Kumiko Aso), visits Taguchi’s apartment and finds him shell-shocked after going on the Internet. Then the poor man hangs himself and disappears, seeming to melt into the wall and leaving what looks like an oil stain in his wake. Kurosawa combines the greenhouse workers’ fumbling attempts to figure out what happened to Taguchi and the computer education of a Luddite college kid named Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) who goes on the Internet for the first time and stumbles onto a site where ghostly figures congregate and a typed message asks visitors, “Would you like to meet ghosts?”
Pulse only gets weirder from here. Embracing the cool logic of a long, tangled, outwardly “realistic” nightmare, the narrative is built not around plot points, but creepy images: grainy Webcam shots of pixillated figures drifting across the screen; a hooded figure very slowly removing his hood; forbidden doorways sealed with red duct tape; a hidden room where a corporeal-looking, seemingly live woman scoots and shimmys like a broken doll being made to dance by a child’s hand; a screen saver full of bright dots that attract or repel each other. (The latter symbolizes the uneasy coexistence of living and dead souls, and the inability of both types to ever really connect. The metaphor would be more effective if the filmmaker didn’t explain it to us in dialogue, a rare instance of Pulse telling rather than showing.)
Kurosawa prizes ambiguity because not knowing is scary. We never find out what, exactly, is happening in this world, or why, or what it means. We know only that with each passing day, the bell tolls for more people, and that sooner or later it will toll for our protagonists (and for us). The film’s last act, which unfolds against increasingly depopulated cities and highways, is not just knee-jerk scary, but beautiful and sad—less reminiscent of zombie pictures (the obvious comparison point) than The Birds, Weekend and the final leg of L’Eclisse.
It would be a shame if moviegoers wrote off Pulse as another J-horror movie, because it actually predates many of the films that sparked the genre’s global vogue, and is superior to all but a few. Kurosawa, the brilliant director of Cure and Bright Future, gave Pulse its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2001. In retrospect, it seems an astonishingly prescient movie, and not just for its rejection of reductive theological explanations and its oblique visual invocations of mass death by suicide, plague, war (the disappearing dead leave Hiroshima-like stains) and terrorism (a burning cargo plane crashes into a cityscape). Pulse chills us to the marrow by daring us to admit the unspeakable truth: that despite thousands of years’ worth of religious and philosophical assurances, we still don’t know if being dead is better than, equal to or worse than being alive, and we will never know until we’re dead ourselves.