Hollywood has been remaking Japanese horror flicks for some years now, and quite frankly I’m amazed that the movies haven’t been screwed up in the translation. Hideo Nakata’s The Ring Two has been the only out-and-out failure so far. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge, and Walter Salles’ Dark Water have had their flaws, but they’ve all stayed remarkably faithful to both J-horror’s preference for psychological chills over blood and gore and to the genre’s core themes of alienation and existential loneliness.
The same holds true in Jim Sonzero’s Pulse, a remake of the deeply disturbing movie by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) that played last year in American theaters and made my list of the 10 best movies. The new film stars Kristen Bell, who has perfected the “perky blonde haunted by ghosts” thing on her tv show Veronica Mars and whose acting is miles better than the cookie-cutter ingenues who usually star in these movies. Bell’s crystalline presence helps center the film. Here, she plays Mattie, a college psych major whose computer geek boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) suddenly drops out of sight. When she goes by his apartment, she finds everything in an advanced state of decomposition, including his cat. With his body mysteriously bruised and his mind evidently gone, Josh mumbles a few words at her before walking into his bedroom and hanging himself. A few days later, Mattie and Josh’s other friends find themselves receiving multiple e-mail messages from Josh, all saying simply, “Help me.” Creepier yet, their internet connections start dialing themselves up and logging them onto a web site containing a single cheeky line of hypertext: “Do you want to meet a ghost?” Whether they click on the link or not, bad things happen to them.
As you might expect, this film is weakest where it Americanizes. The script, co-written by Wes Craven, includes a scene in which Mattie and the hacker who purchased Josh’s hard drive (Ian Somerhalder) track down a half-crazed computer genius (Kel O’Neill) who “explains” to them what is happening. The scene is unnecessary because events in J-horror derive their power from being inexplicable, and O’Neill chews the scenery something awful. Also, a note to cinematographer Mark Plummer: Filming everything through a blue filter does not make it scary. The worst mistake this Pulse makes is showing us the ghosts as deathly white humanoid soul-sucking beings. Too often this movie stoops to playing that familiar Craven-esque game of hiding the monster and having the characters walk slowly when they should be running to the nearest exit.
If that’s your idea of how a horror flick should behave, you’re much better off going to that overhyped British flick The Descent. This film, on the other hand, gives you something The Descent and most others don’t, which is an apocalyptic vision of something as intangible as a computer virus breaking down civilization and emptying the world of people. Even here in a watered-down form, that vision is enough to put a knot in your stomach. I said this before about the original, but the remake also plays out like the Left Behind saga, only there is no God. It stares at both the cyber and physical universes and finds only a void. Does that scare you? It sure does me.
Starring Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder. Directed by Jim Sonzero. Written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, based on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s screenplay. Rated PG-13. Now playing.