20 Years Later, Pulse Is Still the Creepiest Horror Movie About Internet Ghosts

20 Years Later, Pulse Is Still the Creepiest Horror Movie About Internet Ghosts
Image: Toho

Pulse begins with an ancient sound: the screech of a dial-up internet connection. At the time of its release in 2001, however, that sound signified a new form of communication that had already begun to change the world. The movie takes a look at where that technology will take us, and forecasts nothing but doom.

Pulse, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa — he also made the wonderful sci-fi tale Before We Vanish; his most recent film, historical drama Wife of a Spy, won Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival — was released at the height of the Japanese horror craze. Ring was 1998; Ju-On: The Grudge was 2002. (Like those films, Pulse got an American remake, though even Kristen Bell completists are encouraged to disregard its existence.) But watching it in 2020, Pulse doesn’t carry that feeling of being part of a cinematic trend. Instead, it’s a snapshot of a time when the internet was just starting to infiltrate the lives of every single person in Tokyo, where its story takes place, and by extension the rest of the world.

“It all began one day without warning, like this,” Michi (Kumiko Asō) tells us in voice-over at the beginning, in a scene aboard a boat that soon gives way to the movie-long flashback that shows us how she got there. Pulse’s characters may not have gotten any warning, but the viewer is inundated with dread as soon as the story kicks in. It’s in the dialogue (“I don’t know, I just feel like something’s horribly wrong”), it’s in the dark apartments and dingy spaces where its mysteries take root, it’s in the nerve-jangling musical score, and it soon spills over into the plot, when Michi goes to check on Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), a co-worker who’s gone incommunicado — and he hangs himself with zero warning soon after she arrives. Discovering his body is the first horrifying ordeal that Michi endures in Pulse, but it will not be the last.

That goes double for the audience, thanks to a parallel plot involving Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a techno-indifferent college student who figures he better get with the times and sign up with an internet service provider. He loads up a CD-ROM and impatiently follows the prompts, but once he’s online, disturbing videos of shadowy strangers — staring, swaying, and otherwise suspended in trancelike states, seemingly captured by some omniscient webcam — begin to pop up on his screen. (We recognise the style of these images because Taguchi left behind a computer disk with similarly unsettling captures for his friends to find.)

Then, a terrifying line of text pops up on Kawashima’s screen: “Would you like to meet a ghost?” He’s spooked enough to seek help at his school’s computer lab, where grad student Harue (Koyuki) takes an interest in his discovery. While Michi and her friends grapple with their intense unease over Taguchi’s death, Kawashima and Harue begin to puzzle through what appears to be a ghostly invasion that’s using the ever-expanding internet as a passageway.

That last bit could serve as a plot description of Pulse, as it’s the easiest way to summarize a film that spends two hours burrowing into some very gloomy places. It is, in essence, true; as spirits begin to “ooze into our world,” as one character puts it, the living who encounter them begin to die by their own hands, like Taguchi, or just sort of melt out of existence, leaving only a black smudge behind. (Given Kurosawa’s tendency to evoke Japanese history in his works, as well as his fondness for apocalyptic themes, the resemblance to the “Human Shadow Left in Stone” preserved at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum is likely not a coincidence.)

However, Pulse is way more nuanced and layered than any simplified explanation could possibly provide, which is a big reason why the more commercial 2006 remake went off the rails. Its plot points don’t always fit together — as much as its characters desperately yearn for meaning, there’s a sense that maybe we’re not meant to understand exactly what’s going on. The primary objective here is setting a mood, not wondering things like “Why do people keep using red duct tape to seal off haunted rooms that other people can’t resist barging into anyway?” And besides, without those rooms, we wouldn’t have some of Pulse’s scariest moments; lest we forget, Pulse is a horror movie first and foremost.

While its pace is fairly deliberate throughout, Kurosawa masterfully punctuates the slow-building tension with both traditional frights (the ghosts of Pulse are low on fancy special effects, sky-high on weird, macabre movements that just might seep into your nightmares) and sudden shocks that come from being invited to witness things that feel forbidden, including multiple suicides. So it will scare you, as advertised. But it’s also a 20-year-old movie that advises caution when dealing with a burgeoning new technology we now can’t live without; the internet may not have unleashed actual phantoms, but it’s certainly pounded the collective human psyche with some very bad vibes.

Pulse’s themes of acute loneliness ring even more true today — though things like social media and virtual hangouts ostensibly connect us more than ever before, they can also have the opposite effect of making isolation feel more pronounced. “Help…me,” Pulse’s human shades plead from the beyond, suggesting that death hasn’t offered any relief from the agony that plagued them in life; if anything, it seems like being dead has only made it worse. As they reach out into our world, menacing the living as part of their desperate quest to feel less alone, it becomes clear they can’t be helped. As we reach the end of the story, with Michi sailing away from a city that’s collapsing under the weight of its own despair, we wonder: Can anyone be helped? Is there hope?

“I can almost see the future,” a previously sceptical Kawashima muses as his acceptance of the supernatural starts to sink in. In 2020, we are living in a version of that future Pulse dangled before us. We no longer have to plug in and dial-up to go online; we can just connect through thin air and let whatever’s floating around arrive nearly instantly at our fingertips. There’s a convenience and excitement that keeps us coming back, and maybe a certain amount of hope that the relationships we cultivate online through our likes and comments are genuine.

But there’s a human element missing in that often faceless void, especially as people have increasingly turned to the internet as a means to spread malevolence — no ghosts required. Pulse picked up on it decades ago, and that feeling of doom has only gotten harder to shake.