The corner in an empty room, the eerie space behind a computer monitor or TV -- these are birthplaces of the weird, the terrifying, and the inexplicable. Over the past few years, Japanese horror films like Ringu, Ju-On, and Kairo have made much of these odd spaces, frightening hyperventilating masses in Japan and making Hollywood execs themselves hyperventilate over the thought of creating remakes here.
The first two have already gotten the Tinseltown treatment; Ringu became The Ring and The Ring 2, starring Naomi Watts, and Ju-On became the Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle The Grudge. The last is just now screening in the States under the name Pulse, but it too awaits the remake reprocessor, this time based on an adaptation by Scream freak Wes Craven.
Pulse is a nasty thing -- incomprehensible, dated, elliptical, and repetitive in the extreme. It's also terrifying, for the same reasons.
The film's opening has a stripped-down banality to it, with a greenhouse, interchangeable young staff, and the ugly smudge of Tokyo in the distance. The film breaks from this studied mundanity when one young woman sets off in search of a colleague who has gone missing with a much-needed computer disk. To her horror, she finds that his apartment is home to at least one strange entity, a sinister spirit that seems to dwell inside his computer monitor.
Director Kurosawa Kiyoshi seems to let his film drift away from that storyline and into the apartment of a college student who logs his home computer onto the Internet for the first time and discovers an unsettling invitation: Do you want to meet a ghost? The ghost turns out to be none other than the missing computer programmer.
The structure of the film is viral -- a loose but organically unfolding plot reveals how distant connections, mundane contact, and virtual encounters through computer files and Internet sites unleash a contagion of suicide and despair. Pulse's world is populated by ghosts who are not alive, yet who seem to mimic life and peer with desperate, hungry curiosity into the realm of the living.
The contradictory notion of a virus -- seemingly alive and present, but not quite so -- lies at the heart of what makes Pulse and other recent Japanese horror offerings so frightening. Perhaps the most heart-stopping moment in Kurosawa's film comes as a young woman, her face set like a beautiful mask, moves slowly down a corridor towards a shivering man. Her clothes flow around her as if she were underwater, her face is greedy with want. Suddenly, in a swooping stutter-step, she…stumbles? Since when does a ghost do something as human as stumble? I would describe this scene in more detail, but unless you want to stroke my hair and ply me with hot toddies every night before I go to bed for the rest of my life, I'm not watching it again.
Ringu director Nakata Hideo combined the banal and the supernatural in the same way: His vengeful Sadako staggers around with hair over her face and just one terrifying eye visible to the audience. What's so scary about a girl sporting a grown-out Veronica Lake ‘do? As Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo has pointed out, the eye is upside down.
For me at least, these films present extremely unpleasant encounters with what literary theorist Samuel Weber calls the uncanny. To quote the good professor, this nastiness occurs when “categories of identity and presence are riven by a difference they can no longer subdue or command.” For me, ghosts glide or fly or float; they do not stumble. Actually, I take that back. Ghosts shouldn't exist at all. Likewise, murderous little girls should not come out of televisions: breaking the fourth wall in such a fashion is deeply impolite. Little boys are not blue, nor should they be allowed to emit catlike siren squalls, as one does in Ju-On. In Japanese horror films, all of these things happen. The phantoms and situations in these director's creations disrupt and crash together neat categories of dead and undead, mechanical and organic, observer and observed. The TV as evil eye, the clumsy dead: who needs any of it?
Kurosawa has shaped his category-confusing ways into an existential question: What if human existence is a lonely hell, and the afterlife just brings an eternity of that isolation? Strange figures walk through the library. Are they alive or dead? Figures flicker on the computer screen: what about them? His human characters are interchangeable, almost anonymous. They reach out to each other, to no avail, and then they disappear, leaving only smudges of themselves in the corners of their barren apartments. A lonely life, a lonelier death.
Pulse will likely be too plodding, too wildly illogical for many; for me, however, those qualities just add to the fear. Plot that moves at the pace and randomness of a water-torturer's dripping faucet, a draggy half-life – these are also the qualities most often ironed-out in American remakes, which often try to drop down a chunk of explanation like a life raft. I wish they wouldn't. How can terror be truly terrifying if it is rationalized away?
Like the demonic Sadako in Ringu, the ghosts in Pulse play at malevolent creation. They tell the tales of their own deaths so well that their audiences die from the same fright. This is a viral life through the reproduction of death, dark work that replicates numbing isolation and horror. Such movies reveal the virus's seed in everyday life, where words and flickering phantoms on screens pass for intimacy, and lives move against each other without intersecting. Modern life already is its own purgatory, Pulse seems to say, and death is just an endless more of the same.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.