A visiting son tries to warn his father and stepmother that they are being menaced by a living and intelligent pulse of electricity that moves from house to house and terrorizes the residents therein.
Despite being produced by a major Hollywood studio, Pulse is a relatively obscure 1980s horror. Similar to Demon Seed (1977) and The Video Dead (1987), its cult following began once fans discovered it on home video, to the chagrin of writer-director Paul Golding after Columbia Pictures gave Pulse a limited theatrical release in 1988. Although it was produced with a generous $6M budget, the studio wanted to limit the movie’s potential. During his tenure at Columbia, Chariots of Fire (1981) producer David Puttnam began investing in smaller pictures at the expense of blockbusters. However, by the time Pulse was ready for its theatrical release, Puttnam had been replaced by Dawn Steel and, unfortunately for Golding, the new president of Columbia had no interest in supporting his “ultimate shocker”. Although it received positive reviews, Pulse was a commercial failure, making an insignificant $40,000 at the box office.
David (Joey Lawrence) travels to California to visit his estranged father (Cliff De Young) and caring stepmother (Roxanne Hart). After finding it difficult adapting to his new lifestyle, David soon becomes interested in a recent incident that occurred in the neighbourhood, when a local resident was killed by the “voices in the wires.” While home alone one evening, David soon notices strange happenings with the electrical appliances and discovers a malevolent electrical pulse has made its way into his father’s house, slowly turning said appliances into life-threatening machines. So it’s up to David to convince his family that the electricity is alive before it turns the house into an inescapable death trap.
The cast give great performances as the latest family terrorised by this demonic electrical entity. Just prior to his teen heartthrob role of Joey Russo in the US sitcom Blossoms (1990-95), Joey Lawrence delivers a wide-eyed performance as David. Considering this was his first role in a feature-length, Lawrence does remarkably well as the main protagonist. Familiar from a range of ’80s films and TV, Cliff De Young (Flight of the Navigator) and Roxanne Hart (Highlander) play Bill and Ellen Rockwell, and the two veteran actors do a commendable job and have the chemistry to portray a convincing married couple. Lawrence and De Young both give solid performances together too, creating a genuine fractured father-son relationship. Bill may be a workaholic but he clearly agonises over spending some quality time with his boy. Additionally, Hart’s delightful as David’s atypical stepmother; departing from the usual stereotype, she’s sympathetic and loving towards her stepson. Everyone here delivers the right amount of seriousness to anchor the outlandish concept.
In an era when masked villains chased down helpless victims, having inanimate objects as an antagonist is no easy feat. However, Paul Golding keeps the action moving at a leisurely pace, gradually building the tension towards the inevitable finale. The director’s inventive visual awareness is evident from the opening montage as we see an electricity station being struck by lightning, and several different angles of telegraph poles and cables mysteriously whirring to indicate electricity may not be behaving as it should. Once the entity enters the house, Golding slowly creeps the camera through the hallways as electrical appliances ominously short-circuit. As events slowly escalate, he also demonstrates a penchant incredibly exciting set-pieces, one of which occurs when David’s trapped in the garage and the entity starts the car’s ignition to slowly fill with the air with carbon monoxide. The well-designed climax is also enjoyably tense as the house finally comes alive, with sequences involving power tools and household appliances aggressively malfunctioning in a manner that predates the Final Destination franchise.
Pulse is powered by the creative cinematography courtesy of Peter Lyons Collister (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers). In order to capture the mayhem the electrical currents are creating, several sequences were filmed using macro-lenses, with extreme close-ups revealing the overloaded circuit boards coming alive. Similar to the VFX used in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), we see mercury solder melting creating metallic globules. While fusing with different components, it organically creates new junctions. Golding lets the audience see the threat, almost giving the electricity a physical representation.
Additionally, Jay Ferguson’s effective score is filled with stabbing ’80s synths and electronic beats. Ratcheting up the tension, it creates an uneasy atmosphere evoking John Carpenter’s Christine (1983). Unfortunately, the compositions aren’t quite as memorable as his work featured on The Terminator (1984) or A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989). However, it contributes to heightening the suspense pleasantly.
During the ’80s, the horror genre began exploiting the public’s lack of knowledge surrounding technology. Movies like Poltergeist (1982), Evil Speak (1981), 976-EVIL (1988), and Shocker (1989) envisioned household items as gateways for supernatural evil. During a decade when America embraced a technological revolution, Pulse shows how the possessions we take for granted can also be our downfall. Bill and Ellen own all of the latest and best electrical gizmos, ranging from televisions, camcorders, and VCRs, but David views all of those appliances with a mixture of bewilderment and suspicion, even stating microwaves ”make you sterile.” When the demonic pulse appears, the electronics slowly become possessed: the TV breaks down, the carefully tended lawn starts to die, and the boiler leaks lethal gas. Perhaps the most disturbing is when the automated security bars trap the family inside the house. As the electrical entity begins to control the devices, they turn into machines of death. Pulse remains a thrilling cautionary tale of technology that we depend on eventually turning against us.
While Pulse remains an exercise in style and suspense, Golding’s first and only directorial effort isn’t without flaws. Inaccurately marketed as a slasher, gorehounds may be disappointed with the lack of bloodshed. As Golding stated later, “obviously the horror genre has changed. I wanted to do something that was much more focussed on suspense rather than blood.” Admittedly, the director creates an impressive amount of apprehension. However, Pulse often feels like it should be a short story featured in Tales of the Crypt (1989-1996). Throughout the short 90-minute runtime, the director’s reluctant to create any thrilling sequences until the final act, meaning it sadly lacks the bite required to make it a memorable tech horror.
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USA | 1988 | 91 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Sourced from an old master supplied by Sony Pictures, Eureka! Entertainment has done an excellent job delivering a satisfying picture for this Blu-ray release. The 1.85:1 picture maintains a light constant grain that compliments the cinematic veneer. Details are prominent with facial textures and strands of hair remaining distinct. This is incredibly evident during the macro-photography with each reference designator and component well defined. The colour balance is great during exterior scenes when the image is bathed in a burst of healthy Californian sunshine. However, primaries could benefit from more saturation to make them leap from the screen. Shadows remain stable, complimenting the handful of darker sequences. Several blemishes including dust and light scratch marks are occasionally visible but never distracting.
For this release, Eureka has sadly provided only one audio option: the original English LPCM 2.0 audio track that includes optional subtitles. But the dialogue is clean and discernible. Ferguson’s mystery-infused score is also incredibly immersive in stereo, helping to open the soundstage with its brooding synths and electronic drum beats. Dynamics are handled well with various industrial and electronic noises making use of the central channels. This is especially evident during a scene involving an active garbage disposal that startles David. SFX including malfunctioning electrical equipment and power surges are detailed and dispersed throughout the soundstage creating an ominous ambiance. The majority of the raucous effects that arrive during the climax are clear with no sounds of distortion, remaining primarily towards the rear channels.
writer & director: Paul Golding
starring: Cliff De Young, Roxanne Hart, Joey Lawrence, Matthew Lawrence, Charles Tyner, Robert Romanus & Jean Sincere.