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Ghosts in the machine: Internet horror dials up moody milieu of scary cyberspooks

 Pulse, one of the few films by Japanese genre bender Kiyoshi Kurosawa to open here, is a psycho-thriller at once spooky and vulnerable—its weak script is haunted by ideas that are ripe for appropriation. Indeed, Miramax picked up the movie after its 2001 Cannes screening and promptly shelved it, presumably to clear space for a remake.

Kurosawa is more a cult favorite than a household name, except among those who confuse him with the late great Akira. But at his best—in the 1997 occult serial-killer chiller Cure or the 1999 Charisma, in which a village is terrorized by a malignant tree—this prolific filmmaker is capable of conjuring up atmospheric tales as unsettling and sustained as the '40s B movies produced by the master of supernatural suggestion, Val Lewton. (Would that Kurosawa had Lewton's brevity.)

A ghost story in which evil spirits lurk online and computers watch their hackers, Pulse is techno horror in the vein of Videodrome and demonlover (or the 19th-century "spirit" photographs currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum). An uncanny new medium is the message. The movie's impressively creepy opener has the young computer programmer Michi (Kumiko Aso) checking out the apartment of a colleague who has been missing for a week. The baleful screen seems to be webcasting the apartment itself. Nor is that the only mysterious presence. The program that Michi's friend has been working on may provide a clue to his fate—or not.

Techno horror in the vein of Videodrome and demonlover: Aso (right)
photo: Magnolia Pictures
Techno horror in the vein of Videodrome and demonlover: Aso (right)

Details

Pulse
Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Magnolia, opens November 11, IFC Center

Suitably shocked, Michi returns home to discover that a malign pulse seems to have taken control of her TV set. What's particularly effective in Pulse is the way that connections seem to happen of their own accord. Something is calling from cyberspace and the sinister program that Michi discovered has somehow migrated through the Net to infect a computer belonging to a technology-challenged university student. Plugging in, he's startled to be invited "to meet a ghost," namely the AWOL computer programmer. Shutting off the machine doesn't necessarily help. "Can the Internet dial up itself?" he asks a more knowledgeable acquaintance.

Kurosawa is typically attentive to mood and milieu. Pulse is populated by lonely souls, most of whom disappear during the course of the movie. Tokyo itself is his most consistent effect—it's already a ghost town. Seen from the ramshackle rooftop office where Michi works, the city is an unfathomable smoggy sprawl. Even on the ground, the story is played out in drab neighborhoods and seedy apartments with sinister sealed rooms. Driving the unwary to suicide, the cyber-spooks are not only manifest as sooty shadow traces and beseeching phone calls but make their appearances in library stacks, video game parlors, and convenience stores.

With very few strong characters and a great many middle shots, Pulse sometimes plods—it's the price of Kurosawa's restraint and his indifference to structure. At least half an hour too long at 119 minutes, the movie allows almost everything to happen at least twice. The exception is a splendidly economical digital catastrophe that occurs once an emptied-out Tokyo suggests that the situation has mutated from an Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style mass phenomenon to a global disaster. It's a single bang, signifying a long whimper.

 
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