Pulse is set in a decrepit midwestern college town that looks like something out of a David Fincher flick even before the wi-fi-ghost-invasion. Anyway, Mattie (Kristen Bell) is trying to reconnect with her emotionally distant boyfriend Josh, having been flung a few text messages here and there but not actually having seen the guy in a week. So, she goes to his maggot-infested, 1995-Bush-music-video apartment where Josh promptly grabs a phone cord, politely excuses himself, and commits suicide in the next room. Mattie and her pals keep getting cryptic IMs from someone logged in as Josh, and thinking whoever wound up with his computer is playing some kind of cruel prank, she tracks down the new owner (Ian Somerhalder) to chew him out. Picture me wiggling my fingers ominously when I say that Dexter's never even plugged it in. Nope, Josh opened the doorway to another dimension where ghosts hungry for college students travel through cell phones, PDAs, and wi-fi connections for a late brunch. Your only options...? Seal your room airtight with red tape (which I think means you suffocate, right?), stumble upon an electronics-free dead zone, or kill yourself. Oh, or try to infect the host server with Josh's OCD-fueled computer virus and hope it brings down the server. I guess you could try turning off the power instead, but what kind of climax would that be?
Pulse has everything you've come to know and love from mediocre J-horror retreads: pasty, pretzel-limbed, jaw-agape ghosties, a tone so unwaveringly bleak that it teeters into self-parody, an anemic, non-sensical plot with no real momentum, no actual scares, and underwritten characters. It's that last point that grates the most. Not that this kind of disposable horror is exactly legendary for meaty characterization, but it seems kinda criminal to saddle someone as immeasurably talented as Kristen Bell with a role that's limited to screaming in tight-fitting clothing. There's nothing for Bell to chew on as Mattie, and even the most devoted fans of Veronica Mars (which, yes, is the one and only reason I subjected myself to Pulse) will feel let down by how uninspired and interchangable her performance is. Hell of a screamer, tho'. Gotta give her that. No one in the central cast stands out, but anytime someone's on-screen who hasn't top-lined a TV show or banged out a pop album, prepare to cringe. I don't know where they dug up some of these guys -- the rag-tag group with the "dead zone" exposition or the guy who engineered the super-ultra-mega-turbo-wi-fi bridge -- but it's 10th-graders-on-their-second-day-of-rehearsals-for-Brigadoon bad.
Aside from some of the praise it gets from the cast and crew on the disc's audio commentaries, Pulse seemed to be pretty much universally disliked. Even The Weinstein Company knew they'd come up a-cropper, trying to salvage something through repeated delays and last minute reshoots before the movie escaped into theaters. Pulse isn't even howlingly bad, that flavor of awful that's at least kind of fun to mock. Barely breaking the 80 minute mark minus the credits, at least the aimless and instantly forgettable Pulse rips the Band-Aid off quickly.
Pulse was trimmed down slightly to land a PG-13 rating theatrically, but a couple of not-particularly-gruesome suicides were restored for this unrated HD DVD.
Video: Pulse is a heavily stylized movie, awash in film grain and bathed almost entirely in a steel greyish-blue. "Stylized" is a word that terrifies some gearheads more than even the most gruesome horror flick (see?), but I was really impressed by how well this HD DVD turned out. No noise reduction appears to have been applied to smoothen out the film's somewhat grainy appearance, and the MPEG-4 compression doesn't buckle under Pulse's challenging visuals. More expansive shots don't impress in quite this same way, but the level of fine detail is especially striking whenever the camera closes in on the lead actors. Every piece of stubble on Ian Somerhalder's face is clearly discernable, and the glistening, inky bruises on Christina Milian after her character is attacked look particularly impressive in high-definition. Pulse's 2.39:1 high-def presentation isn't the type that consistently wows me from frame to frame, but it looks fantastic more often than not, and its less eye-catching moments probably owe more to the original photography and the look of the film than anything specific to this HD DVD.
Audio: The title of the movie seems kinda appropriate since the soundtrack is littered with waves of low bass that leave everything in the room pulsating. The foundation-rattling low frequencies are the highlight of the disc's lossless Dolby TrueHD audio, although like most horror flicks with an atmospheric bent, Pulse makes extensive use of all of the channels it has on-hand. The sound design doesn't establish the sort of unsettling atmosphere it should, but nothing else in Pulse does either, so I guess that means it's in good company. I wouldn't rank Pulse with the best of the TrueHD tracks I've heard so far on HD DVD, but it's a good mix and a solid effort.
Aside from the TrueHD track, the audio options are the same as every other HD DVD from The Weinstein Company: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio in English and French along with optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
Supplements: The extras from the DVD have all made their way onto this disc, and although none of them have gotten a high-def spit-'n-polish, at least they're offered in anamorphic widescreen.
There are two audio commentaries, including one with director Jim Sonzero and special makeup effects designer Gary Tunnicliffe that was recently inducted into The Onion A.V. Club's Commentary Tracks of the Damned. It's not as pretentious or overly self-congratulatory as that write-up makes it sound, though, landing somewhere around average. Considering that this is a pairing of a director and a makeup effects designer, I'd have thought Sonzero would be doing all the talking and that Tunnicliffe would just lob off a comment or two whenever the phantoms popped up. Tunnicliffe has nearly as much to say as the film's director, although oddly enough, he rarely touches on the makeup effects. The Onion did nail how frequently the headaches of shooting in Romania are brought up, with the distinctive look of the movie standing out as another of their favorite topics. Although Sonzero and Tunnicliffe both think they've pulled off something really remarkable with Pulse, they're still able to poke a little fun at it, from an aborted chicken-esque mechanical cat in a bathtub to the number of toothbrushes Mattie packs in the wake of the webcam-ghost-apocalypse.
The 'serious' commentary is kinda ordinary, but I really enjoyed the faster paced, quippy track with producers Mike Leahy and Joel Soisson, actor Samm Levine, visual effects supervisor Kevin O'Neill, editor Kirk Morri, and line producer Ron Vecchiarelli. A couple hundred thousand times more entertaining than the movie itself, the six of 'em joke joke about a Romanian hernia operation, raffling off who in the cast would get to deliver the one "fuck!" the MPAA allows for a PG-13 flick, why Samm Levine has two 'm's in his name, Ian Somerhalder taking the reins as the set's resident Martha Stewart, and how it cost fifty grand to reproduce a beaten-up truck for the final scare. In between the ribbing, they do touch on the movie, including the danger in trying to tack an American sensibility onto J-horror, struggling with a PG-13 rating, a nod to Dario Argento (!), the division of work between visual effects and makeup effects, and basically re-writing Pulse's entire third act in the middle of filming to paint Dexter as more of a hero. Great track. Required listening if for whatever reason you wind up a copy of Pulse.
The disc also includes twelve minutes' worth of deleted and alternate scenes, and these seven snippets of footage can be viewed individually or played all at once. It's split down the middle between short scares and additional setup for Dexter, and a clunky, bleaker alternate ending is tossed on for good measure.
"The Visual Effects of Pulse" (6 min.) is my favorite of the three short featurettes on this disc, delving into the mindset behind as well as the execution of the jittery electronic appearance of the phantoms, the use of a series of layered photographs to transport Mattie into another world, and the movie's money shot with the mountain of swarming hands.
"Creating the Fear: Making Pulse" (7 min.) is a standard issue making-of EPK, anchored around brief interviews with the film's director, producers, and most of the key cast. It's too short to offer much of anything substantial, but there's a quick glance at some behind-the-scenes footage (including Kristen Bell cracking up when she has to say "Josh" backwards), the practical effects behind the mangled limbs in a laundry assault, and a quip about how closely Jim Sonzero resembles one of the movie's phantoms.
There's also a four minute piece with a parade of paranormal investigators wielding solid, documented scientific evidence that the dead are using consumer electronics to communicate from the other side. A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: See, the downside of being an HD DVD reviewer -- writing this months after the movie has shown up on DVD, let alone hit theaters -- is that I'm last to the shitty puns table. What's the fun in cracking a lame joke about Pulse flatlining now that hundreds of better writers have already beaten me to the punch? Oh well. Pulse is tolerable, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies, but it doesn't do anything well enough to make it worth even a rental. Unwaveringly loyal Veronica Mars fans might be tempted to give the movie a look just to support their favorite actress, but it's one of Pulse's many faults that it manages to squander the mighty talents of Kristen Bell. If that's not cause for an emboldened, italicized Skip It, I don't know what is.
The usual disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review are from promotional stills and don't necessarily reflect the way Pulse looks on HD DVD.