When it comes to Hollywood mining the world for original films to reappropriate it seems no sub-genre is as over-plundered as the supernatural films of Asia, especially those from Japan and South Korea. In a way, this is somewhat of a curious practice since the remakes tend to fundamentally alter the style and tone of the originals to the point where they bare only the vaguest resemblance to their source material. Now, it’s been about a decade since I’d last seen the Pulse films but, in my recollection, the remake was handled better than most. I figured it was time to revisit these haunting films to see if that impression would still hold up under deeper scrutiny or if the remake would be yet another example of an Asian delicacy watered down for mass consumption.
Right away, there are certainly some areas where the films diverge, starting with the plot itself. The original follows two separate storylines that eventually converge involving a young woman working in a plant shop, Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso) and college student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato). After Michi’s friend hangs himself she finds strange, unsettling images on the computer disc he was working on and Ryosuke also sees similar disturbing images on his computer after performing an update. From there, both characters begin to have strange supernatural encounters as more and more people around them die or disappear.
Naturally, the plot of the remake is similar but instead follows college student Mattie Webber (Kristin Bell) in a single storyline. This time it is her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) who commits suicide and the disturbing images are found by the tech-savvy loner, Dexter (Ian Somerhalder) who buys Josh’s computer following his death. As with the original, people start dying and disappearing mysteriously and it’s up to Mattie and Dexter to figure out why and to try to stop it if they can.
Despite the fact that these films are similar in terms of story, in other ways they couldn’t be more different and show a pretty clear example of what happens when you Americanize an Asian film. Instead of relying on CGI and jump-scares, the plot of the original unfolds slowing and deliberately, building tension and dread in an incredibly realistic and utterly chilling story. As someone who has seen a lot of horror I can safely say that this is one of the most unnerving and genuinely frightening films I have ever seen, with imagery that will fuck with your head long after the credits roll.
What makes it so effective is the way writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa presents the ghosts themselves. Instead of using an overabundance of CGI to try and make them look scary, Kurosawa primarily presents them as regular looking people but with somewhat altered movements, obscures them as shadowy silhouettes, or simply has them be in a place that people should not be. These scenes are also accompanied by haunting, otherworldly sound design that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
By contrast, the remake presents the standard issue horror film ghosts popping out for predictable jump-scares and literally sucking out people’s souls like Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat. Rather than allowing tension to build slowly like the original, the remake also follows the standard cliched formula of darkly lit “scary” scenes that alternate with brightly lit safe ones that make the scares feel more like a series of set-ups and payoffs rather than something woven naturally into the story. What’s perhaps the most irritating (but not at all surprising) aspect of the remake is the excessive amount of exposition from conveniently placed characters and the need to over-explain every aspect of the plot and the ghosts themselves. The original’s more ambiguous story was far more effective at giving the ghosts a more powerful, ominous presence.
So all in all, the remake wasn’t the exception to the rule that I had remembered it being and was just yet another example of a dumbed-down version with less interesting characters and less effective scares. Any positive aspects of the remake (like the famous water tower suicide) were simply scenes that were done better in the original and despite good lighting and sleek camera work there is just nothing about the remake to recommend it once you’ve seen the original. So if you haven’t done so, track down the original and experience it for yourself because anyone who lets subtitles be a deal-breaker for watching a film is missing out on some of the best and most interesting horror the world has to offer.