The Horror of Isolation (& Pulse)

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Pulse 2001
For a metropolis, the highways and roads are peculiarly empty. So are the streets, factories and shops. A sense of existential dread oozes over the inhabitants of this deserted cityscape.

No, not my recent trip to London as COVID-19 was starting to strike panic into the nation but a description of the Tokyo of the second half of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t the corona virus that made me think of Pulse, rather it was reviewing the 1964 Japanese horror classic Kwaidan for Louder Than War.

Watching that striking anthology movie inevitably made me think of some of the J-Horror successes of more recent years like Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge and Pulse. That latter movie although released in 2001 seems strangely relevant in the world of the corona virus.


Pulse – or Kairo to give it its Japanese title – was made at a time when Japan was experiencing what became known as Hikikomori, an extreme form of social withdrawal. In the run-up to the Millennium, this phenomenon was proving an increasing concern in Japan with maybe a million or so young people shutting themselves off from the outside world, sometimes for very extended periods of time, decades even. Doctors and psychologists struggle to precisely understand why and after being pretty much cooped up for a couple of weeks now I have even less idea why anybody would choose to live in this way.

What is clear is that technology has played a big part in the problem. Often those affected spend long hours wired up to an internet connection with mobile phones and video games also taking the place of real social interaction. It’s appropriate that Pulse opens to the sound of the stuttering screech and crackle of a dial-up modem.

Like Ring, this is a technology based chiller. In a 2016 interview included in the Arrow dual format release of Pulse, Kurosawa even claimed that it was ‘totally a copy of Ring.’ I think he was joking as he smiled while saying: ‘In Ring, the ghost came out of the television set. So we thought, “What else could be similar but different to that?”‘

His answer was the internet with ghosts somehow entering via the world wide web.

Pulse 2

Pulse runs two parallel storylines which eventually converge. The first concerns some co-workers at a rooftop plant nursery who are worried about their colleague Taguchi. He’s been doing some unspecified work for a computer disc but even with a deadline looming, he has stopped coming into work and hasn’t been answering his phone.

Michi (Kumiko Aso) feels the need to investigate. Taguchi won’t even answer his door. But he has hidden a key on his doorstep so Michi enters using that. She calls out his name, but he doesn’t answer. When she sees him, he is emotionless. He points her in the direction of the disc and steps into an adjacent room. The next time she sees him he’s hanging from a noose, dead.

When the disc is retrieved and viewed, it reveals an unsettling image of a spectral Taguchi staring blankly into his own computer monitor. Soon his friend Yabe is ignoring his co-workers. He hides in a storage room, repeating the reclusiveness of his dead friend.

Meanwhile economics student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Katô) is beginning to take an interest in the internet. He signs up to a service provider and immeditely encounters some eerie images online. When a mysterious website asks ‘Do you want to meet a ghost?’, he shuts down his computer and goes to bed. But as he sleeps, it connects itself to the web and displays some more alarming imagery.

The next day he hotfoots it to the computer room of his university and makes enquiries. Computer science major Harue takes an interest and they strike up what looks likely to blossom into something more than just a friendship.

Don’t look for any romance here, though. Harue soon begins to display a severe streak of pessimism and becomes steadily more detached. ‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like to die,’ she admits and talks about her childhood where she was often left alone. ‘You might be all alone after death, too.’

She might just have a point. ‘Death is eternal loneliness,’ one otherworldly apparition later tells Kawashima.

Pulse 3

Dialogue is sparse in Pulse. The score is unnerving. The colour palette is greyish and seldom does any colour make an impact, one exception being the red tape used to seal shut the windows and doors of ‘forbidden rooms’. Why is the tape always red? Sorry, no idea. Kiyoshi Kurosawa isn’t a director who likes to spell everything out to audiences.

Is Pulse scary? I wouldn’t say so. A couple of scenes are undoubtedly creepy, especially one where a female phantom moves slowly towards Yabe with a highly erratic gait. Faces and bodies merge into shadows in darkened rooms and sometimes bodies transmute into smudged stains on walls. There’s also a spate of suicides that might be disturbing for some viewers to watch.

It’s a slow-burner but mesmerizing. It’s thought provoking too – predicting a world where new technologies which promised to connect people paradoxically instead only create more isolation.

It might be a little too long and some of the special effects look fairly primitive by today’s CGI standards but I’d take it any time over your average gorefest, slasher or found footage horror.

Pulse was shot in 2000, a time when the internet for me meant Netscape Navigator, Altavista and free web hosts like Tripod. The world wide web was booming but my time online up to about 2000 was spent out and about in cybercafes like the Java at the end of Park Road in Glasgow. No shutting myself away for years on end for me.

I’ve been online for 25 years now, but it’s only been very recently that for the first time I’m relying on the internet as my chief form of entertainment and contact with others.

Despite many reservations about social media, I’ve never been so glad that it exists.


The Squeeze: British Movie Night #2

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The Squeeze Original Quad Poster
This week, a 1977 crime drama set in London starring Stacy Keach, David Hemmings and Edward Fox along with Carol White (see my previous post).

The cast also includes Freddie Starr, one of Britain’s most popular and highest paid TV stars of the era, a man who’d also been a part of the Merseybeat boom as singer with The Midnighters. But he ate one hamster and that’s what he’ll always be remembered for.*

You also might just be able to glimpse Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones, who was an extra in the film – this being before his band had imprinted themselves on the consciousness of the nation. In his autobiography Lonely Boy, Jones recalled: ‘You can see me walking through Portobello Market wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Cookie saw it by chance on late-night TV once and nearly fell off his fucking sofa.’

Paul Cook must blink less than I do.

Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach) has been a Scotland Yard detective superintendent and a good one too by all accounts. As the film kicks off, though, he’s steaming drunk on the London Underground. The sort of guy you hope doesn’t get talking to you, if you’re sitting in his vicinity.

Ciggy in mouth, collar and tie undone, and with a bottle of VAT 69 in his pocket, he sways from side to side as he exits the tube train. It’s no big surprise when he collapses down an escalator and ends up in hospital.

When he’s judged fit enough to leave, he heads straight to the nearest boozer. It’s four years since he investigated anything. He is no longer part of the police force and is now on Social Security. His one-time wife Jill (Carol White) has left him to look after their two kids even though he can hardly look after himself.

Stacy Keach in The Squeeze

She has married a wealthy businessman called Foreman (Edward Fox). When their daughter Christine is kidnapped, Jim feels the need to become involved.

Stephen Boyd plays Vic, the man who has planned the kidnap. He’s a devoted father, a Rotarian and utterly ruthless. He’s also well read and chides one of his gang Keith (David Hemmings) for not reading more. ‘Instead of all that poncing about at disco clubs.’ Vic has read Arthur Koestler’s 1972 book The Roots of Coincidence but he’d have been better poncing about at disco clubs himself as he maybe shouldn’t put quite so much faith in Koestler’s ideas on the subject.

When he catches Jim sniffing around in his home, he threatens him with a shotgun and instructs a henchman to repeatedly batter him with a baseball bat.

Vic pours him a ‘lying bastard cocktail’, whose ingredients remain a mystery but which judging from Jim’s reaction must be potent. Very potent, although Jim continues to lie. Vic judges him to be too much of a mess to be any kind of threat but makes him strip because he’s ‘stinking the fucking place out,’ and drops him off naked outside his house. It won’t be the last time a character is humiliated in The Squeeze.

Jim enlists the help of Ted (Freddie Starr), a thief who he once arrested. Although still thieving, the two have somehow formed a bond and Ted now spends chunks of his time trying to persuade Jim to pack in the booze, and making sure he’s eating properly.

Luckily, Jim’s cop instincts haven’t deserted him completely, but he’s hardly the ideal person to pursue a callous gang of criminals. There’s almost as much tension created around the idea that he might relapse into some serious boozing while he attempts to rescue his ex.

In the world of Jim Naboth, dry sherry is nothing but an aperitif. ‘It’s not even drinking in my book.’ Brandy isn’t drinking either although I’m pretty sure the Department of Health might disagree with him.

The Squeeze 1977 lobby card

It’s been said that the producers persuaded a former local gangster to help out so that shooting in some dodgy locations would go smoothly. And on the subject of locations, Jim lives in a shabby pad in Notting Hill – a very different Notting Hill to the gentrified area of the cosy romcom with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

Seeing Ind Coope pubs on the streets of West London, I was instantly reminded me of my first visit to the capital as a teenager in the late 1970s. Jim also visits a pre-santised, spectacularly sleazy Soho, where Ted treats him to a – ahem – massage after Jim has spent an evening in Cardboard City under the Westway. The pair also visit Oxford Street, where Debenhams employs a top hatted doorman to keep out riff-raff. Like Jim.

Directed by Michael Apted, The Squeeze is pretty much forgotten today despite its notable cast. It’s no Long Good Friday but I liked it even though it does come over like a TV drama at times (I’m thinking particularly of The Sweeney). Leon Griffiths, who adapted the screenplay from David Craig’s novel Whose Little Girl Are You?, went on to devise Minder, one of Britain’s most popular shows of the 1980s.

David Hentschel’s first day of paid employment was spent making the tea for the participants of a session at Trident Studios in London where David Bowie’s Space Oddity was being recorded. He went on to bigger things including composing scores for a number of films. His work here is pretty effective and definitely ahead of its time. There’s some other music utilised too such as The Stylistics’ romantic ballad You Make Me Feel Brand New.

This accompanies a sequence that is excruciating to watch, when Keith and the gang force Jill to strip naked in front of them. Carol White excels here portraying a scared woman doing anything she can to help the chances of survival for herself and stepdaughter. I’d like to know what The Stylistics thought of the song’s use here.

Although Jill might do anything to protect Christine, she isn’t an entirely sympathetic character here. Not only has she has abandoned two of her children but she visits them infrequently. She also arguably left Jim when needed her most. As the man himself puts it bluntly: ‘[She] ran out on me the first time I got so drunk I pissed the bed.’

By this point, White herself was abusing drink and drugs and you could have forgiven her if she had turned down the role of the ex-wife of an alcoholic. It’s another brave performance from her and one of her final appearances on the big screen.

Alexander Walker in The Evening Standard considered The Squeeze ‘a British gangland movie determined to be quite as tough, bloody, violent, squalid and ugly as any Hollywood model.’ The Daily Mirror summed it up as ‘a package tour of thuggery’.

Okay. A film called The Squeeze with Carol White, star of 1968 drama Up The Junction. You can likely see where this is leading. From the fine pop year that was 1979, here’s a song that I’ve never heard a single person say anything negative about, although Squeeze’s manager of time Miles Copeland thought it shouldn’t be a single due to the lack of a chorus. This is Squeeze and Up The Junction. Oh the memories!

* One of the most bizarre headlines in British newspaper history and obviously a total invention. Freddie Starr was a vegetarian for starters.