Directed by Jim Sonzero
Distributed by Dimension Films
8%. That’s the piteous rating Pulse is enjoying over on RottenTomatoes.com at the time of this writing. Critics are piling on the scorn, tripping over themselves to see who can be first to cleverly pronounce the film dead, void of a pulse. *zing!* It’s been a while since everyone was in such universal agreement about something being so worthy of their combined negativity. But is it really that bad? Uwe Boll bad? Bad enough to be considered one of our genre’s Giglis? In my opinion, absolutely not. In fact, up until the last 20 minutes or so, I was enjoying the hell out of Pulse. It was chugging along true to the spirit and utterly respectful of the original, one of my top five favorite Japanese films of all time. But I am quite -painfully- obviously in the minority. In truth, looking at the majority’s view of Pulse has me questioning my critiquing prowess somewhat. Which means this is probably going to read a bit more like an editorial (or, since we’re all on computers and it fits in so well with Pulse‘s overall theme, a blog) than a review as I try to figure out if I’m the one who’s out of touch or if instead it’s the other 92% of the world.
It happens to us all. You’re in a group, discussing movies. Everyone agrees that such-and-such is a “masterpiece” and so-and-so, the director, is a “genius.” Everyone but you that is. Or it’s the opposite. Everyone agrees that such-and-such is a “crapfest” and so-and-so, the director, is a “hack.” Although most of the comments directed toward Sonzero haven’t been quite so cutting, the general consensus is definitely that Pulse is one of the worst remakes to come along, if not the overall worst film of the year so far. Which I think does it — and its potential audience — a big disservice. It’s infinitely better than last year’s Dark Water (another one of my favorites in its original state) and at least as enjoyable as the second American Ring, which I also felt came nowhere near the quality of its Japanese forerunner.
Let’s take a look at the characters in Pulse and the situation in which they find themselves. Mattie (a slightly shaky but overall convincing Kristen Bell) is in the next room when her boy friend, Josh, joins the ever-increasing number of suicides suddenly occurring on their college campus and in several other metropolitan areas across the country. Slowly she and her remaining friends begin learning about and trying to make sense of what’s behind the suicides: ghosts who are coming back to earth via electronic means and sucking out the life force of folks like Josh who happen to be accessing their computers, cell phones, PDAs, etc. I work on the grounds of a local university, and that is one part of Pulse that is dead-on. Kids today are plugged in 24/7. Unless they’re sleeping, they are connected to each other in one way or another. You don’t see a young person out and about who isn’t either listening to an iPod, talking on the cell, or text messaging the person walking just a few feet ahead. If they’re in their dorm rooms, they are doing homework on their computers or screwing around on MySpace, downloading movies, or, big shock, messaging someone about something inane. The scenario put forth in Pulse isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility. Certainly it changes several of the key details, but as I said before, in spirit Pulse sticks closely to the premise of Kairo, its Japanese predecessor. People get black inky-looking patterns under their skin and turn into soot and ash; taping up doors and windows keeps the spirits at bay — for the most part; and the future seems quite bleak and apocalyptic indeed. Mark Plummer, the cinematographer, does a fine job of recreating Kairo‘s look and tone. The film’s palette and texture, along with its sound design, were near perfect for setting the required mood. I couldn’t have asked for much more from the first two thirds of Pulse. And I was the one kicking and screaming beforehand how I didn’t even want to pay a lousy $5.00 for the twilight screening.
Eventually Mattie hooks up with Dexter (a rumpled Somerhalder who does what he can with what ultimately is a fairly thankless role; the movie does, after all, belong to Bell), the new owner of Josh’s computer, which was sold out from under his friends by his beyond stereotypical Black landlady. The less said about her, the better. Much stronger supporting characters are fleshed out by the other two adults in the cast: Rifkin and Grenier, especially the former as Mattie’s psych professor, who is trying to help her cope with Josh’s death and everything else that’s happening. As for the rest, Milian is mostly inoffensive; I’ve been a fan of Levine’s since his Freaks and Geeks days so was happy to see him get some work; and Rick Gonzalez only marginally overplays Stone, the last member of the group and the first to join Josh in the netherworld. Like Somerhalder, everyone pretty much rises to the level of the material they’re given. Which is to say that where the script is weak, so are the performances (Bell has the honor of delivering the most painful line in the film about someone being emphatically “alive“); but when it takes its time to let the viewer think about and maybe even empathize with the tortured beings who are trapped in our machines and need our energy — or souls, depending on your perspective — to get out, well, then we have the makings of a halfway decent film. Some of the images are quite creepy and disturbing, and if the members of the small audience I saw it with are any indication, Pulse could easily be responsible for some of this generation’s nightmares. But that’s only if people actually see the film and judge it for themselves. (And then take the next step and track down the original for the real deal.)
After some digging, Mattie and Dex figure out that a mysterious fellow named Zieglar is responsible for starting the whole mess via a nasty computer virus and that Josh had come up with a possible fix for it before hanging himself. Lo and behold, it is here, at the crucial moment in the film, when Mattie and Dex can either save the world or let it be taken over by the white Maynard-looking ghosts, that it does indeed . . . sadly . . . fall apart. The actor portraying Zieglar is horribly miscast and the character badly written, and what should be a final 15 minutes or so of flat-out horror become “Huh? That’s what all this was leading to?” It is fortunate though that while, yes, the ending is somewhat more positive than Kairo‘s, it doesn’t quite tie everything up all nice and neat with a big red bow. Perhaps the yet again re-cut DVD version I’ve heard murmurs about will do a better job of concluding the storyline and give the film some of its credibility back.
It’s true that ultimately Pulse is a disappointment. A blatant example of studio tinkering and tampering, focus groups gone awry, pandering to the PG-13 crowd, and all the other things that can ruin a film. But even so, I wouldn’t call it, as most of my contemporaries have, a complete failure. It’s 50/50 at its best and its worst. Basically, if you didn’t like Kairo (and I know plenty of people who fit that category), you won’t like Pulse. If you liked Kairo but have a thing against remakes on principle or otherwise, you also won’t like Pulse. But if you liked Kairo, tend to take each remake as it comes, and are having one of those once or twice a year kind of days when you’re feeling rather charitable, you could do a lot worse than to check Jim Sonzero’s Pulse. I can just about guarantee it’ll register more than most of the other flatlined offerings of remade J-horror being shoved down our throats these days.
2 1/2 out of 5
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A Demon Within Review – Familiar Possession Beats To A Dreary Tune
Directed by Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau
Possession flicks don’t often hold a long shelf life in the horror community, with Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s A Demon Within suggesting why. Hands emerging from the darkness, exorcisms, anxious priests – you’ll see it all again as you’ve seen it before. Early scenes glimmer a polish unlike equal indie products, but that’s just the devil playing tricks on you. Once the film’s main satanic takeover begins, cursing teens and stony glares become the been-here-before norm. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an immediate detractor like some high-society snobs may believe, yet it’s surely no excuse either. Today’s review being an example of both mindsets.
Charlene Amoia stars as Julia Larsen, a divorcee who moves into Crestwick, Illinois looking for a clean start with daughter Charlotte (Patricia Ashley). Their dusty toucher-upper is a quaint, aged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with electrical issues and weird noises at night. Nothing to worry about, right? Julia’s focus is better directed towards town doctor Jeremy Miller (Clint Hummel), who she immediately hits it off with (after almost hitting *him* with a car). She’s eating stir-fry at his place one night, all things going well, and that’s when it happens – Charlotte is possessed by an evil force who enacts its sinister plan. Charlotte may physically be present, but only as a vessel for “Nefas.”
Without hesitation, A Demon Within lays predictable groundwork as small-town haunters have for decades. Charlotte’s new home is already infested with a spiritual squatter, Jeremy bottles (and drinks down) a blemished past that’s exposed too late, there’s plenty of characters sneakin’ up on one another – never with much “oomph.” Charlotte’s teeny-bopper voice drops to truck-driver deep at the height of possession, but it’s a distracting sound design that alone strikes little fear. Serious scares are attempted, be it a pitch-black basement slashing or Charlotte’s hide-and-seek pounce, just never delivered. An inconsequential failure to unite tone and atmosphere.
Performances are…well…rigid, to say the least. Amoia and Ashley strike a surprisingly likable chemistry as living humans, but once Ashley goes demonic, chemistry bottoms out. The way A Demon Within positions Charlotte when possessed is utterly dull and undefined; Ashley playing an unenthusiastic harbinger of death. It’s bad enough that Hummel’s tortured doctor masters the emotional range of Mona Lisa and the town’s pastor is hardly a scene stealer – but to have a demon be so vanilla (without a side of nuts, no less)? Getting past the limited lighting and Charlotte’s manly demon voice is hard enough, let alone her mostly relenting threats.
Making matters worse, the film’s third act is hardly a religious salvation that flows with ease. I had more fun watching Julia stammer over pizza and beers with Jeremy than their final fight against ghastly hellspawns. The truths of Jeremy’s past leak out in flashback form, only to reveal his stubborn inability to comprehend one’s own possession encounter in the very house Julia bought (useful information, eh?). The local priest shows up in the nick of time, a few cutaway jolts attempt cheap thrills, and some holy water mucks up an old painting – but again, minimal notability. Er…not even minimal? Shaky last-minute framing makes it hard to even notice the touch-ups to Charlotte’s face that signify her unholy imprisonment, even worse than blackened CGI mists.
A Demon Within tries, fumbles, and tries some more, but it’s best treated as a reminder of better exorcism stories that exist elsewhere. Even something like The Vatican Tapes is an improvement over this possessive redundancy, hokier than the honky-tonk love song that plays atop a pizza-chain flirt scene. There’s something to be said about getting out and creating original horror, but herein lies the problem – this ain’t *that* original. With harsher scares and tension, such a fate could be ignored. As-is? It’s hard to see past anything more than a January release placeholder.
A Demon Within is a seen-it-before possession thriller that brings nothing new to the conversation. Not the worst, but also not a “hidden secret.”
Desolation Review – The Joy of Being Rescued and All the Surprises That Come With It
Starring Raymond J. Barry, Brock Kelly, Dominik Garcia-Lorido
Directed by David Moscow
It’s those random, once-in-a-lifetime encounters that only a select few get the chance to experience: when we as regular participants in this wonderful thing known as The Rat Race, stumble across a soul that we’ve only witnessed on the big screen. I’m talking about a celebrity encounter, and while some of the masses will chalk the experience up as nothing more than a passing moment, others hold it to a much larger interior scale…then you REALLY get to know the person, and that’s when things get interesting.
Director David Moscow’s thriller, Desolation follows shy hotel employee Katie (Lorido) and her “fortuitous” brush with Hollywood pretty-boy Jay (Kelly) during one of his stops – the two hit it off, and together they begin a sort of whirlwind-romance that takes her away from her job and drops her in the heart of Los Angeles at the apartment building he resides in. You can clearly see that she has been a woman who’s suffered some emotional trauma in her past, and this golden boy just happens to gallop in on his steed and sweep her off of her feet, essentially rescuing her from a life of mundane activity. She gets the full-blown treatment: a revamped wardrobe, plenty of lovin’, and generally the life she’s wanted for some time.
Things return to a bit of normalcy when Jay has to return to work, leaving Katie to spread out at his place, but something clearly isn’t kosher with this joint. With its odd inhabitants (a very creepy priest played by Raymond J. Barry), even more bizarre occurrences, and when one scared young woman cannot even rely on the protection from the local police, it all adds up to a series of red flags that would have even the strongest of psyches crying for their mothers. What Moscow does with this movie is give it just enough swerves so that it keeps your skull churning, but doesn’t overdo its potential to conclusively surprise you, and that’s what makes the film an entertaining watch.
While Lorido more than holds her ground with her portrayal of a woman who has been hurt in the past, and is attempting to place her faith in a new relationship, it’s Barry that comes out on top here. His performance as Father Bill is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t exactly chill you to the bone, but he’s definitely not a man of the cloth that you’d want to be stuck behind closed doors with – generally unsettling. As I mentioned earlier, the plot twists are well-placed, and keep things fresh just when you think you’ve got your junior private investigator badge all shined up. Desolation is well-worth a look, and really has kicked off 2018 in a promising fashion – let’s see what the other 11 months will feed us beasts.
Got your eye on that shining movie star or starlet? Better make sure it’s what you really want in life – you know what they say about curiosity.
Wolf Guy Blu-ray Review – Sonny Chiba As A Werewolf Cop In ’70s Japan
Starring Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Nami, Kyosuke Machida
Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Distributed by Arrow Video
As virtually every American adaptation has proven, translating manga to the big screen is a job best left to Japanese filmmakers. There is an inherent weirdness – for lack of a better term – to their cultural media that should be kept “in house” if there is to be any hope for success. Ironically, the stories are often so fantastical and wildly creative that a big American studio budget would be necessary to fully realize such a live-action vision. But I digress. Back in 1975, Toei Studios (home of Gamera) adapted the 1970 manga series Wolf Guy into a feature of the same name. Starring the legendary Shin’ichi Chiba (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba), who at that time was in his prime, the film combines elements of crime and psychedelic cinema, delivering less of a werewolf film (despite the title suggesting otherwise) and more of a boilerplate crime caper with a cop who has a few tricks up his hairy sleeve. I should stress it is the story that plays fairly straightforward, while the film itself is a wild kaleidoscope of strange characters and confounding situations… mostly.
An unseen killer, known only as “The Tiger”, prowls the streets at night slashing victims to death and leaving behind no trace. Beat cop Akira Inugami (Sonny Chiba) is on the case, and he has an advantage over his fellow brothers in blue: being a werewolf. As the opening credits flashback shows, Akira is the sole survivor of the Inugami clan of werewolves after a slaughter wiped out the rest of his kind. Now, as the last of his brethren, he uses his acute lycanthropic skills, under the auspices of the moon, to track down underworld thugs and solve cases uniquely tailored to his abilities. As the lunar cycle of the moon sees it growing fuller Akira’s powers, too, increase to superhuman levels.
Searching for this mysterious “Tiger”, Akira is led into a subterranean world of clandestine government organizations, nightclub antics, and corrupt politicians. One night, Akira is attacked and taken prisoner by a government research lab that wants to use his blood to create werewolves they can control. Only problem is – which they don’t realize – Akira’s blood cannot be mixed with that of a human; the only end result is death. Miki (Etsuko Nami), a drug user with syphilis, comes to Akira’s aid and proves to be quite useful. She holds a secret that has the potential to vastly change Akira’s world but, first, a showdown with the criminal underbelly looms on the horizon… as does the fifteenth day of the Lunar Cycle, when Akira will be made nearly invincible.
First, some bad news: Sonny Chiba never attains full werewolf status. This is not that movie. Sure, he growls and snarls and sneers and possesses many of the traits of a werewolf but in terms of physical characteristics he more or less remains “human” the entire time. Yes, even during “Lunar Cycle Day 15”, a.k.a. the moment every viewer is waiting for, to see him turn into a wolf. Instead, he just winds up kicking a lot of ass and taking very little damage. To be fair, a grizzled Sonny Chiba is still enough of a formidable presence, but, man, to see him decked out as a full-on kung-fu fighting werewolf would’ve been badass. The film could have done better at tempering expectations because it builds up “Day 15” like viewers are going to see an explosion of fur and flesh, instead it’s just plenty of the latter. Aw, well.
Lack of werewolf-ing aside, the film plays out a bit uneven. The opening offers up a strong start, with The Tiger attack, wily underworld characters being introduced, and a tripped-out acid garage rock soundtrack (which I’d kill for a copy of). But Second Act Lag is a real thing here and many of the elements that may have piqued viewer curiosity in the first act are scuttled, and although the third act and climax bring forth fresh action and a solution to the mystery it also feels a bit restrained. Then again, this is Toei, often seen as a cheaper Toho. Wolf Guy serves as a good introduction to Akira Inugami and his way of life, which makes it a greater shame no sequels were produced.
Presented with a 2.35:1 1080p image, Wolf Guy hits Blu-ray with a master supplied by Toei, meaning Arrow did no restorative work of their own on the picture – and it shows. Japanese film elements, especially those of older films, are often notorious for being poorly housed and feebly restored. This transfer is emblematic of those issues, with hazy black levels, average-to-poor definition, minimal shadow detail, and film grain that gets awfully noisy at times. The best compliment I can give is daylight close-up scenes exhibit a pleasing level of fine detail, though nothing too eye-popping. This is a decidedly mediocre transfer across the board.
The score fares a bit better, not because the Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono mix is a beast but because the soundtrack is so wildly kinetic, exploding with wild garage rock and fuzzy riffs right from the get-go. Dialogue has a slight hiss on the letter “s” but is otherwise nicely balanced within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.
“Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts” is a September 2016 sit-down with the film’s director, who reflects on his career and working with an icon like Sonny Chiba.
“Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master” is an interview with Yoshida, a former producer at Toei who oversaw this film and many others.
“Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1” covers the man’s career up to a point, with the remainder finished on Arrow’s other 2017 Chiba release, Doberman Cop.
A theatrical trailer is also included, as is a DVD copy of the feature.
- Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts
- Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master
- Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1
- Theatrical trailer
While the film might be a bit of a letdown given what is suggested, fans of bizarre Japanese ’70s cinema – and certainly fans of Chiba’s work – should, at the least, have fun with this title.
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