Pulse-pounding horror

Sometimes it seems as if the only good horror films are coming out of Asia these days. This latest one to reach these shores is KAIRO, retitled PULSE for U.S. consumption. It’s a story about…well, it’s not quite clear what the story is about, at least initially. For the first half, the film plays out like a series of almost random scenes, with little continuity: Some computer geek hangs himself for no apparent reason and his friends fret about what could have caused his inexplicable decision; then they get freaked out when a computer disk he was working on contains an image of his room, with the dead man vaguely seen standing in the shadows (it never seems to occur to them that this might just be a picture he took while alive and saved on the disk).

The dialogue scenes move along at an excrutiatingly slow pace, and the film seems to be going nowhere fast; fortunately, the tedium is occasionally interrupted by the intrusion of some kind of supernatural manifestation. The scares scenes are easily worth the price of admission — unnerving and uncanny in the best tradition of Japanese ghost stories, but without the “long-black-hair-of-death” cliches we’ve come to expect (there is no Sadako/Kayako clone crawling around).

During the early portions of the film, which felt mostly like an excuse to string together some great ghost scenes (for example, a student tries to catch up with a lurking figure in the school library, who mysteriously eludes pursuit), I found myself again remarking on the brilliance of Takashi Shimizu’s strategy in the JU-ON films, which was to abandon plot structure entirely and smoothly tie together a string of episodes that kept the fear flowing without stopping for exposition scenes.

As the film progresses, several interesting ideas are suggested, the best of which is that the realm of souls is finite, and once it’s filled the dead will start to impinge upon our world more and more. Apparently, there is not room enough on Earth for both the dead and the living, so they want us out but they don’t want us dead (that would just make more ghosts), so people are mysteriously disappearing to…where? Some undisclosedl limbo perhaps?

Sadly, few of these ideas connect with each other, and none of them are really developed dramatically; they’re just tossed in as a way of offering some kind of justificaiton for what’s happening. Mostly obviously, the film never explains the discrepancy between the disappearances and the suicides (there is more than one). If ghosts are not killing people but making them “disappear,” why are some people killing themselves? As a way to avoid being trapped in limbo? Or are they joining the other side?

In its second half, the film finally settles into a groove and develops something that almost feels like a plot. It also moves beyond beng just a simple ghost story and takes on an impressive apocalyptic feel as the normal human world collapses under the weight of the supernatural intrusion from beyond the grave. It’s a nice approach the gives the film some distinction, separating it from RING and JU-ON. (One should note that last year’s DARKNESS also tried to play out and end-of-world scenario scenario in a horror story, but could not pull off the idea with any conviction.)

In the end, PULSE is a frustrating film that suggests, without quite convincing, that all its hints and ideas might add up to something if you, the viewer, are just smart and persistent enough to put the puzzle pieces together. Still, whatever its flaws, this is the kind of movie that makes the hair rise on your skin, and I will admit that on the drive home at night, I kept looking into my rearview mirror, half-expecting amorphous presence to be lurking there…