“Paranoia is just another word for hyper awareness.”
The above phrase pops up midway through the brilliant 1988 techno-horror Pulse and is spoken by the mysterious old man Holger (Harold and Maude and Cool Hand Luke’s Charles Tyner) who has been investigating a string of sinister slayings that seem self inflicted but actually hide a deeper danger.
It all starts one night in suburbia when Bill and Ellen Rockland (played by The Craft’s Cliff De Young and Highlander’s Roxanne Hart) are awoken by their neighbour trashing his home. Ripping out appliances and flooding the floor the crazed man ends up electrified to death but the street write the whole thing off as a loner pushed over the edge by the death of his wife who he may or may not have murdered.
Things quieten down until the arrival of Bill’s son David (90’s heart throb and Blossom star Joey Lawrence) who has come to visit his father. Although Ellen his step mother does her best to make the boy feel at home, Bill is over worked and absent but when the pair leave David alone one night things take a turn into the terrifying.
Starting with the TV acting up and its insides melting the next thing young David knows is he is nearly gassed to death when a ruptured pipe leaks and the electric garage door strangely stops working. It is clear to the boy that the electrical current in his home is out to get him and although his family refuse to believe him he finds a friend in the aforementioned old man who has seen the malevolent menace strike several times before.
As the accidents pile up, increasing in ferocity and more of the family are targeted Bill and Ellen must start to take the electrifying threat seriously or suffer the same fate as so many others before them.
Promoted with the cheesy yet catchy tag lines ‘In every second of every day, it improves our lives. And in a flash, it can end them’ and also ‘the ultimate shocker’, Pulse is a pitch perfect technophobic horror made for modern 80’s audiences that still somehow packs a powerful punch.
Written and directed by Paul Golding, Pulse captivates its audience from the start with the fantastic yet forbidding shots of power stations and pylons. Making the everyday extremely eerie is the central mission for Golding’s wonderfully well shot film and it succeeds this throughout, transforming household objects into instruments of pure horror.
Fundamentally Pulse is a family drama about a separated dad floundering to fix the failing relationship he has with his son but Golding injects that unexpected electrical element early on. What elevates the film above other techno-horrors is the multifaceted meaning behind the destructive force.
The performances are all excellent and the effects simple and sharp avoiding the unholy utensils and ridiculous pulsating power monsters that populate other movies of the same sub-genre. Filled with unsettling extreme close ups of the internal mechanisms of the devices that dominate the rooms all around them, all we ever see of the villain are ominous blue sparks and melting metal.
Described by Holger as a “voice in the wires” the homicidal electrical presence is never specifically explained and its origin could be anything from supernatural to scientific. In a psychological sense the happy safe home the boy knew is turning against him the same way his fathers marriage broke apart leaving him a child of divorce.
Is David behind the whole thing or an ancient evil or perhaps some brand new warped electrical being; whatever the answer Pulse keeps us guessing. In fact there is a possibility that everything that happens is pure coincidence and although this is a stretch the fact that Golding even leaves us with a doubt proves the skill in his storytelling.
Causing horrifying accidents involving possessed power tools, skin scalding showers and blazing infernos the multiple repairmen who attend the Rockland home admit that although they are alleged experts they are actually as unclear why things are happening as everyone else.
This leads to a wonderful yet chilling moment of realisation in the characters and viewer that most of the electrical appliances we use everyday may as well be magic for all we understand them, something true in 1988 and even more the case today.
With its creeping tense atmosphere and unknowable fatal force Pulse is a jolt to the system working wonderfully well to stimulate our fears and paranoia about the modern conveniences we have come to rely so heavily on. Perhaps we should all follow old man Holger’s advice to unplug everything and go live off the grid before the “voice in the wires” stars calling our names.