Like several of this year’s picks, Pulse/Kairo comes with a substantial content warning. As the review will discuss, this film is a meditation on despair and may not be suitable for viewers sensitive to imagery and themes related to self-harm. Stay safe out there.❤️

If you grew up in Canada around the same time I did, you quickly learned that there were two classes of scary movie you might get shown at a sleepover. First, there were the fun ones: the Child’s Play’s and Friday the 13th’s of the world, with their panicking teens and maniacal-but-recognizable killers. This is where Scream lived, and Nightmare on Elm Street too. Most of these were Slashers which, for whatever reason, someone’s Dad would let us rent when we felt like freaking ourselves out. Maybe that impulse was rooted in their own adolescent experiences with a lot of these films, or a kind of tacit admission that kids had been sneaking into scary movies since time immemorial anyways. Maybe it was because our parents secretly knew a lot of those classic Slashers have surprisingly wholesome themes (don’t lie, have sex or go off alone!), or it could be they just really identified with Freddy’s terrible dad-jokes. For whatever reason these were marked as “safe” Horror, and weren’t liable to mess us up too badly. 

Anything that might show up in a Planet Hollywood was fair game for a sleepover movie, and it’s no coincidence basically the entire above category is North American cinema. This is also how I stumbled into Alien at like 10 years old, but that’s another story.

Then, there were the other scary movies. The dangerous ones.

These are the ones that would get passed around at school in rumors – you’d hear from somebody that snuck into Ringu by mistake and came out of it totally messed up. You’d have guys at school prank-calling one another’s massive cellphones to do the The Grudge croak at one another. Some kid with a knack for storytelling would sit you down and just summarize the plot of Audition as if it were a documentary – which, for us trusting adolescent idiots, it basically was. These were the scary scary movies, the ones that weren’t supposed to be fun. You’d get shown these at a sleepover if someone had seriously trusting parents or a mischievous older sibling. For us, there was no understanding these films, and not just because so many of them were in foreign languages: this stuff could get you because it could surprise you, it crawled under your skin and set up shop. It was working from a completely different cultural playbook of Horror, one that was totally distinct from the cheesy Evil Dead’s we’d seen before. We were defenseless to it.

It didn’t matter that – especially compared to their American counterparts – a lot of these films weren’t particularly violent. It didn’t matter what happened in them either, since so few of us were brave enough to watch them all the way through. What mattered is that they were different, and that novelty gave them a terrible power over us. We were witnessing Horror’s ability to turn a mirror on society’s fears – but to a culture to which we didn’t belong. The result was, and is, electrifying.

This is the root of a lot of foreign Horror’s ability to freak Westerners out so bad: it’s a one-directional exchange that relies on our ability to intuit cultural markers and tropes that we might not have any background on. That’s the magic of international cinema, we get to learn while the camera’s rolling. When we miss we get the (partially) unintentional comedy of something like House or the meowing boy in The Grudge. When it sticks though, like El Orfanato, these films can shatter your nerves in ways you never thought possible. They can linger in the back of your mind like a bad dream.

Pulse, or Kairo by its original name, might stick forever.

Something is very wrong, but it’s so difficult to say what it is.

Kudo Michi is new in Tokyo but she’s already built close friendships with her coworkers Yabe, Junko and Taguchi. The four of them work together in a rooftop plant shop downtown, the kind with wide balconies and a view over the city skyline. Taguchi is a tech enthusiast with a sizable PC setup at home, so it make sense that he’s the one to work on a computer disc for the shop. Then, he simply disappears.

Days pass and the friends grow worried. Michi plucks up her courage and takes the bus to Taguchi’s place. When she gets there something is seriously off: the apartment is shrouded in gloom, heavy drapes cover the windows and it’s a struggle to make anything out. There are no lights inside save the sunlight that flattens against the shuttered blinds. Sections of the room are blocked off by plastic curtains that obscure the shadowy lumps piled behind them. The camera hovers between these divides at odd angles, intentionally obscuring Michi as she searches for her friend in the dim glow of his apartment.

She finds the computer desk first. Then she finds Taguchi.

Across town, Ryosuke, an Economics student, has just set up the internet in his tiny apartment. His laptop sits propped up by coke cans on a low table next to his ashtray and his playstation controller, all of which dominates the center of his room. There’s just enough room to sit on the floor, smoke and click through the boring legal documents to get himself online. When he finally does, the screen goes black.

Past his own, staring reflection, Ryosuke can make out the shape of a man in a room very much like his own but with no lights. The man is in a chair and slowly rolling towards the camera. There’s something over his face. Behind him is a wall covered in writing, which Ryosuke can barely make out.

The writing says “help.”

Pulse (2001) is a film that gives the viewer nothing, so that’s all the plot summary you’re going to get. 

Every one of Pulse’s scenes feels like a dream. There’s an unease that pulls at the edge of every shot, like the camera itself is suffused with the loneliness and suffering of its subjects. What begins as a mystery movie quickly builds into a meditation on trauma, grief and overwhelming depression that spans the gap between Thriller and Cosmic Dread, but rarely dips into anything that resembling conventional Horror. It’s disquieting more often than it is outright ‘scary’, which of course is much, much worse. 

There are no monsters here, no combat and no villains – only hungry ghosts and the people that struggle to contain them.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking terrifying.

Despite its nearly two-hour length, Pulse maintains a consistent sense of dread by refusing to bow to audience expectations. Like a dream, it wanders from subject to subject and character to character: many scenes are silent and most appear unlit. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has a habit of filming his work on-location in abandoned, occasionally condemned sets and it shows. Every set is crooked and filled with background junk, walls are smoke-stained and cracking. There are vast expanses of silence, some of it broken by barely-intelligible whispers. Most rooms are lit by whatever ambient lighting happened to be present, making for a starkly beautiful film that can be overwhelmingly dark both literally and metaphorically. And it certainly gets very, very dark. 

It’s also a distinctly Japanese ghost story, which might be why the American remake with Kristen Bell was such a disaster. But let’s not talk about that.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made a nearly 50-year career of shooting these kinds of films, from cult-favorite Cure to Sweet Home, the movie that would later go on to morph into Resident Evil. His work on Pulse is as gorgeous as it is depressing; a two-hour waking nightmare that invites you to sit with his characters in a world slowly tipping backwards into despair and total isolation. Despite the techno-horror conceit of an internet-gone-wrong and 20 years to its name, Pulse still feels startlingly relevant today.

If you can track it down, Pulse is an incredible ghost story wrapped up in an unexpectedly profound, mature exploration of death and isolation. It’s a powerful film.

This has been entry 14/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!