Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pulse (1988)

Little David Rockland (Joseph Lawrence) is coming to Los Angeles for the summer to spend time with his father Bill (Cliff De Young) and his new wife Ellen (Roxanne Hart). Not surprisingly, the kid is not too happy with the whole divorce situation, and things certainly aren’t helped by a father who seems to be trying a bit too hard at exactly the wrong moments, and not hard enough where it counts most. Ellen’s pretty great, though, and while David is an unhappy little kid at the moment, he’s not unfair about the situation.

The family situation is going to be the Rocklands’ least problem anyway, for a malevolent electrical power has jumped over from the house opposite after it had killed its inhabitants. The official story is a bit different, of course. At first, only David notices anything untoward at all. Curious electrical effects and strange noises (the proverbial voice in the wires) plague the house, and only slowly work up to more dangerous events. There’s a crazy old man (Charles Tyner) responsible for the renovations of the house opposite who provides David with crazy talk/exposition but little practical help.

Understandably, given the family situation, Bill and Ellen don’t really believe what David tells them about what’s going on, but once the events turn more lethal, Ellen rather quickly comes around. Bill,  though, is quite a different case, and it might just take something truly horrible to happen for him to let himself be convinced.

If you ask me, Paul Golding’s Pulse is one of the little unsung masterpieces of 80s horror, a film that proves (again) that you don’t need a large body count to make an effective horror film and that you could do worse than make the subtext of your story and the supernatural events in it fit one another.

The subtext does fall a bit under the umbrella of “rich people’s problems” – or for you Americans “upper middle class people’s problems” – of course, with the film’s series of home appliances going crazy a clear expression of the fear all the beautiful things (things!) you acquire won’t actually keep you safe from harm at all. Why, the bars on your windows meant to keep the bad things out might very well turn out to be the bars of your own private cage. This could become horribly blunt and annoying, as well as a case of “why should I care?”, but the film grounds this suburban existentialist anxiety in deftly drawn characters and a personal situation that is just specific enough to be relatable.

I think there’s also something different and more universal (at least for the developed world) going on behind the more specific suburban fears too, an expression of the simple fear that the things in your life, the objects around you, have a life of their own, and worse, aren’t just not on your side but actively working against you. And you wouldn’t even know it until it’s too late, because you don’t really understand these objects and how they work at all. For that, there’s a separate class of specialists, but they, the film insinuates, might just use a lot of jargon to hide the fact they don’t understand how these objects truly function either. If you think about it, it’s a rather Lovecraftian view of things, with a barely knowable universe that at best just doesn’t care for your place in it.

Pulse is also rather effective and clever in using David’s viewpoint for most of its running time, the position of someone whose more flexible view of the world lets him believe a strange notion like something evil living in the wires much easier, yet who also can do the least about it. Not that the grown-ups are all that effective in that regard later on – it’s nice they believe, but who won’t call them crazy? Golding is quite good at keeping David a child too without looking down at him, with his plans generally being clever but also not really realistically achievable, which he’d understand if he knew more about the world around him.

As if the subtext and text weren’t enough to recommend Pulse, there’s also the case of its rather flawless execution, with some excellent suspense scenes, good acting (Joey Lawrence is not one of the great child actors but he’s also good enough), and a lot of moody shots of malevolent looking electronics that find the uncanny in the parts of the quotidian we generally never look at – until it’s too late, as Pulse would have it.

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