Shot-on-video horror films are easy to shit on. They're weekend projects, usually made because someone came into a little bit of money. You would gather up a few local theater group actors, toss together a quick script, and hope that what you ended up with filled a gap in the market. In the 1980s, those gaps were everywhere. If you managed to convince a few of those local actors to take their tops off, chances are rental stores would want your stupid shitty movie. Moreover, if your movie just so happened to fit a popular trend, people would actually spend their hard earned money to rent it.
If you were born in the 1990s, this might be a bit difficult to believe, but yes, there was a time when supply didn't quite meet demand when it came to video rental choices. Nowadays, you have access to hundreds of thousands of films just by going online. But if you lived in a small town or were just a particularly obsessed video renter in the mid 1980s, chances are you found yourself far less than spoiled for choice.
A little further up the chain of quality were direct-to-video releases. I don't know what the real statistics are, but I would bet my left nut that the majority of titles sitting on the horror shelves of video rental stores back in the 1980s never saw a theatrical release in the States. They were usually cheap films, probably made for half a million, but unlike shot-on-video atrocities, these films were actually films, shot on celluloid and edited using a flatbed instead of a few VCRs daisy chained together. For every five films that featured no one you've ever heard of, there would be one or two that starred a recognizable scream queen or a washed up actor, usually Cameron Mitchell. They felt like real movies, looked like real movies, but… Well, there's a reason these films were made for quick rental store turnaround and not the multiplex.
If you're looking for the best example of the worst kinds of direct-to-video horror movies, FATAL PULSE is a damn good place to start. I rented this movie back when I was a kid. It looked stupid. It sounded stupid, but like I said, sooner or later, you just found yourself without a whole lot of options back then. The films I wanted to see were all rented out. The films that weren't were the films I had already seen. What the hell was I supposed to do? Not rent a horror movie? Rent a movie from some other genre? What are ya, fucking nuts?
FATAL PULSE is a direct-to-video slasher movie. The end.
I don't really need to say anymore, do I?
The film takes place on a college campus. Or so we're told. We never once actually see a college campus, just some nondescript streets and a three story house that we're meant to believe is a busy sorority home. Jeff has just recently decided to get back together with his girlfriend, Lisa, a decision that necessitates Jeff blowing off some hot blonde with more tits than brains. Shortly after Jeff ends their brief fling, the hot blonde is attacked in her home, strangled to death by a black gloved killer. After a few more sorority girls end up dead, the police really start ramping up their investigation, eventually targeting Jeff as their main suspect, all because Brad, Jeff's ex-friend and Lisa's ex-lover, saw Jeff leaving hot blonde's house the night she was murdered.
Remember those gaps in the market? I bet you can see them right now, can't you? The sorority house girls under attack from an unknown killer. Perfect for slasher fans. The brutal violence meted out by a black gloved killer evokes memories of great Italian and European horror-thrillers. The Hitchcockian pull of a story about a wrongly accused man. On paper, the film is conceptually quite strong, easily marketable and sellable. On screen, however, the whole thing falls apart.
For starters, the slasher film bits don't work because the victims are not even a part of the damn story. They're side characters, only introduced a scene or two before they're murdered. Despite knowing every single victim, Lisa doesn't seem to really acknowledge their deaths, let alone the fact that she's clearly swimming in the “possible victim” pool. Much of the on-screen time between Lisa and Jeff is spent on their relationship issues, not the fact that someone is bumping off their friends with alarming speed. No real effort is made to uncover the killer's identity, let alone avoid the killer altogether.
The slasher and Euro-thriller angles might have fared better had this film been made in the very early 80s, but FATAL PULSE hit video store shelves in 1988. The film feels horribly dated (and not just because everyone has massive hair, and the soundtrack is non-stop synth rock and hair metal). All of the problems this film suffers from were solved six or seven years before it ever saw its first day of production. Slasher films quickly learned how to squeeze blood from a stone to make the absolute most of the reductive narratives their tiny budgets would allow. Look at FATAL PULSE with its love triangle and slasher running amok, and think about just how well MY BLOODY VALENTINE played those same cards. Think about how many fantastic gialli used Hitchcockian tricks to play their well crafted games of cat and mouse. FATAL PULSE feels like a film made in the earliest days of both the slasher film and the giallo. It feels like the kind of film we would have seen before folks like Carpenter and Argento came along.
And speaking of the Hitchcockian thriller angle, FATAL PULSE drops the ball here as well. Jeff is only targeted by the cops late in the film. The only piece of evidence that would suggest Jeff, a model student with no criminal past, is the killer would be the fact that he was the last person to see hot blonde alive. That's literally all the cops have on him, but in this films universe, that's enough to warrant them chasing Jeff through the streets like the angry mob chasing down Frankenstein's Monster. But what is the real reason the cops are after Jeff in the first place? Well, it's because Brad, the pudgy dickhead with the Robert Smith hairdo, wants Lisa back and is therefore willing to frame Jeff for the murders.
See, that's an interesting bit of narrative right there. Why not have Brad be the killer? Why not have Brad slicing and dicing girls (and even slashing one girl's neck open with a vinyl record) in some twisted play for Lisa's heart? That would make so much more sense and be way more satisfying than the explanation we actually get for the murders, something to do with a man using an experimental treatment to cure his terminal illness, a treatment which unfortunately gives rise to misogynistic, homicidal rage. But no, the film only plays this card so we can have a chase scene and a fist fight. The Hitchcockian angle is never given much room to grow. It's pretty much dead on arrival anyway.
And that's because there really isn't a pulse to be found in FATAL PULSE. At 90 minutes, it feels terminal, chock full of every tired cliché in the book. The only time the film manages to be entertaining is when it focuses on characters that feel like they've wandered in from some other slasher movie going on just down the street. Joe Estevez's crazy Vietnam vet and Herschel Savage's frothing police detective are both wonderfully sketched characters, all bug eyes and histrionics. They're great, just total joys to watch. Shame then that everyone else, all the characters that actually matter, are such personality vacuums. Maybe if the characters seemed at all interested or worried or scared or even just annoyed at the horror going on around them, the film would have been mildly amusing. It simply isn't, primarily because the film can't do a single damn thing right. It emphasizes the unimportant, lavishing attention on personal, petty drama rather than the emergent drama of its slasher narrative. It's a paint by numbers affair, the kind of film done a thousand times before. Problem is, FATAL PULSE lacks even the most basic discipline. It can't even seem to match the right damn paint to the right damn number.