|The image of a television screen showing nothing but static was a potent one in the nineteen-eighties, and nowhere more than in Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s 1982 hit Poltergeist, which took a common enough sight in homes across the world and rendered it something to be scared of. This was thanks to associating those apparently "no signal" channels with the creeping feeling that far from nothing getting through the black and white snow on the set, there was in fact something sinister making its presence felt which could infiltrate your brain and broadcast straight to your unwary mind, as if it too was a television.
Everyone in the eighties knew from Poltergeist that static on the TV meant the realm of the spirits was lurking and pushing to get through to this reality, or they did in the movies at least; David Cronenberg's Videodrome (also 1982) was one which presented this as a focus of menace, to the point that utter madness could ensue should you stare too long into that shapeless, noiseless void. But as technology grew more prevalent in the eighties, it was difficult to get away from stories that explored the dark side of it, ruminating on how it might turn against its consumers and warp them, even potentially kill them, for allowing it into their lives so extensively.
Which brings us to 1988's Pulse, a movie that owed something to Spielberg and Hooper, and not purely because a haunted television was at the heart of its upsets to what should have been a safe, happy, Reagan-era nuclear family. There are hints that all is not well from the start: little David (sitcom star Joey Lawrence) has been living with his mother since his parents split up, so that happy home was never all it was cracked up to be, but his dad (Cliff de Young - Shock Treatment, The Craft) and stepmother (Roxanne Hart - Highlander) are a well-meaning couple who have gone the extra mile to make the slightly troubled kid feel more at home than he would otherwise.
As a matter of conversation, they bring up the neighbour across the street, seemingly unaware this might freak David out since he was electrocuted to death a few days before after smashing up his house in a baffling rage. The police were called, the fire brigade, an ambulance... but nobody knows why this apparently normal man snapped. Well, nobody except us, since we have been privy to the opening titles which demonstrate that a lightning strike recently has given the electricity in the area a strange form of life, and one that spreads like a virus to David's new home, not that his father is about to brook that kind of nonsense - but his son is a lot more convinced as with superstition.
You know that kids' superstition, if it's not getting out of the bathroom before the toilet stops flushing lest you get killed, it's that the weird bloke down the street is actually a serial killer, there's no proof of it, but believing it offers a bizarre comfort to be aware the world is a dangerous place and you can control how you interact with it if you wish to. Except movies like Pulse were more concerned with taking those fears and making them concrete, therefore David sets about investigating the house of the dead man, where he only goes and meets engineer Charles Tyner, the go-to guy for this kind of horror, especially when he could deliver the doomladen exposition so well.
Tyner is uneasily amused by the fact the dead man went absolutely crackers, and more amused still by the possibility his madness may have been completely justified: the word "paranoia" is mentioned when he discusses this with Hart when she too starts to suspect the worst. That structure of a virus staging a takeover - of a body, of a mind, or a computer system - was clearly in the format of the script by director Paul Golding, that and his desire to make a variation on Poltergeist and reap the rewards, though that was not so much to be, for a cult following was all Pulse could muster in the end, boosted by being a solid option for video rentals back in the late eighties and early nineties for when the more popular movies were unavailable.
So Golding's dreams of being the next Spielberg were not to be, despite his concentration on the threat to family that was a theme of the blockbuster devisor's canon, this was to be his final film as he left the business thereafter with some interesting but hardly massively popular scripts to his name. Pulse had in its favour its adeptness in turning the screws on normality, accompanied by some nice closeup special effects of circuit boards rewiring themselves so that we know David's growing panic is justified, and that the electric intelligence is prepared to murder to get its way. If you are reminded at this point of Andrew Bujalski's 2013 cult effort Computer Chess, which also took the idea of self-aware power and proceeded to sabotage it with cruel irony, then put that to the back of your thoughts and enjoy Pulse, a mid-level, mid-budget item effective enough on its ambitions, if not perhaps as bloodthirsty as some horror fans would prefer. But its organised pandemonium did entertain in a lightly subversive way.
[Pulse is released on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment with the following special features:
Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase (First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only) | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray | LPCM 2.0 audio | Optional English SDH | Brand new audio commentary by author and film historian Amanda Reyes | Tuning in to Tech Horror - video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin | PLUS: A Limited-Edition Collector's Booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar and author Craig Ian Mann (First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only)]