Please note: this review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
The scene opens on an operating theatre. The atmosphere is tense, and you can almost smell the Dettol and plasma. On the table lies an elderly patient, his rib cage exposed and glistening red. The surgeon struggles to remove some hideously mutated organ, the beads of sweat standing out on his brow as he hacks and saws with his scalpel. Junior doctors look on with anxious faces; they know that something’s terribly, terribly wrong. And then the patient’s eyes open, and he begins to scream…
Pulse introduces Hannah (Claire “Being Human” Foy), a medical student who, a year after her medical consultant mother unexpectedly dies, resumes her training at a shadowy hospital where shifty surgeon Nick (played with lizard-like coolness by Stephen Campbell Moore) obviously has something to hide – during a particularly fraught operation, a small incision he accidentally made in his hand becomes ever more inflamed, while in his stomach, an unseen parasite occasionally stirs.
Meanwhile, Hannah begins to experience what may or may not be hallucinations: her mother’s face in a mirror, and strange movements in the stomach of a patient. There’s clearly something rotten at the core of the entire hospital depicted in Pulse, a pilot for a proposed BBC series which, if it gets the go-ahead, could run into a planned two seasons or more.
Writer Paul Cornells’ script is sharp and pithy, and it’s a pleasure to see a BBC production with such fluency in the horror genre’s vocabulary. David Cronenberg’s body horror and existential angst is an obvious influence, with concepts and scenes liberally borrowed from many of his best films; there’s the writhing abdominal parasites of Shivers, the queasy operating scenes of Rabid, while Moore’s portrayal of shifty Nick displays more than a hint of Jeff Goldblum’s bug-eyed performance in The Fly.
But while Cronenberg is a touchstone, Pulse’s references are made tastefully and with affection rather than unimaginatively ripping them off. Besides, there’s something genuinely original about Pulse‘s core concept, which fuses the interpersonal melodrama of Casualty with the trappings and sweaty-palmed tension of vintage horror.
Nowhere else will you see a television drama with such a keen sense of unease; director James Hawes knows how to push an audience’s buttons, and also how to push the boundaries of what can be shown in a BBC drama, with every septic wound and grotesque organ offered in unflinching close-up.
This might suggest that Pulse is little more than an exercise in bad taste, or a calculated attempt to gain infamy by upsetting Daily Mail readers. For the most part, the opposite is true: Pulse goes far beyond the mere blood and splatter of less intelligent horror, and cleverly plays with universal anxieties; more intelligent than an entire shelf full of Saw DVDs, Pulse derives its shocks from more than a few cheap scares, tapping instead into our collective fears of infection, sickness and disease. (Though one standout scene goes for gross-out gore that is pure Alien, as the bulk of the episode’s cast is liberally coated in a shower of viscera.)
Cronenberg provides Pulse with its tension and paranoia, but its grainy camerawork is reminiscent of the stark digital video of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a visual styling that lends the production an occasionally documentary-like sense of immediacy.
Foy makes for a convincing heroine, and plays the part with the right mix of vulnerability and determination to prevent her character from sliding into the typical woman-in-peril clichés that the horror genre so frequently falls back on.
If there’s one criticism one could make of Pulse, it’s that its plot will seem a little too familiar to those well-versed in horror cinema; it’s obvious from the first act that Hannah’s doomed patient is being experimented on, and that some form of Coma-like medical conspiracy is afoot. When shifty Nick finally spills the beans (or some of them) about his hospital’s dark secrets, more horror-savvy audience members will already have guessed roughly what he’s about to say.
Nevertheless, Pulse isn’t entirely without its own twists and turns, and includes a mortuary scene that will have fans of Stuart Gordon’s Grand Guignol horror comedy Re-Animator chuckling with glee, as Hannah uses an electric surgical saw to dispatch an unruly patient in spectacularly bloody fashion.
Pulse ends at a juncture where enough questions are answered to make the pilot feel at least somewhat self-contained, while leaving enough loose ends for a potentially excellent series to come. Whether that series will be able to maintain the tautness of plot or the momentum of this episode is another matter, of course, but taken as its own discrete slice of genre entertainment, Pulse is a compelling, confrontationally bloody love letter to the very best examples of body horror.