Signal, The (2007)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-06-13 07:48

Written and Directed by: David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush

Starring: Anessa Ramsey, A.J. Bowen, and Justin Welborn

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“You chopped his head off!"
"He had it coming... probably. These are wild times. Everybody's been driven to desperate measures. I guess this happens to everybody."

With another Friday the 13th looming and having exhausted myself on writing about the franchise inspired by the date, I figured it’d be best to look forward to Jason’s future adventures rather than his old ones for once. As of now, Mrs. Voorhees’s baby boy is set to next be directed by David Bruckner, who made his debut as co-director of The Signal, a micro-budgeted indie from all the way back in 2007. Not only was it an auspicious start, but the film has held up well over that time—in fact, I may have underestimated it back then because this recent revisit reminded me of its deftly bizarre mix of black humor and horror. The Signal is a subtly weird film and a refreshing, low-key change of pace from the more abrasive, overtly mind-fucky horror films that often crop up.

An apocalyptic triptych delivered in “transmissions” by three directors, the film concerns the mind-melting effects of a mysterious signal that hits the airwaves in the town of Terminus. Caught in its maddening crosshairs are overbearing husband Lewis Denton (A.J. Bowen) and his adulterous wife, Mya (Anessa Ramsey), both of whom attempt to survive the over-the-air virus that turns its victims into confused, bloodthirsty maniacs. For Mya, salvation rests with her lover, Ben (Justin Welborn), who has convinced her to hop a train out of town so that the two can start a new life together.

Of course a fuckin’ deadly apocalyptic signal will put a wrench in your infidelity. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that. What’s cool about The Signal though is how it treats its premise: rather than approach it as an excuse to dole out mindless gore and become the umpteenth riff on The Crazies or 28 Days Later, the film simmers in a creeping, unnerving terror. Rather than wallow in the physical aftermath of the signal, the film primarily focuses on its psychological fallout, which finds perfectly sane individuals suddenly bashing in their neighbors’ skulls. And for those already unstable individuals like Lewis, the signal is practically an invitation to go completely nuts and wreak havoc on your friends and family.

Also cool is how seamlessly the three directors weave their tale. Technically, I suppose you’d consider The Signal to be an anthology, but its aesthetic unity hardly makes it noticeable. The trio of directors relies on hovering around the survivors with intimate, handheld camerawork (most of the film plays out in tight spaces, like cramped apartment buildings)—it’s the sort of horror film where you can feel the terror closing in from all sides. From the opening frame, it’s an overbearingly bleak, low-lit film, where each corner and crevice seems to hold some unseen menace, with the unholy, screwy signal often scoring the proceedings like a dirge.

Bruckner kicks off things with the opening transmission, “Crazy in Love,” which (perhaps by virtue of going on first) acts as the most complete, standalone segment of the film. It’s here that the two lovers separate and find themselves in the initial stages of the signal’s glowing, haunting dread—not that it isn’t already intense enough, what with Lewis (oozing scumbag menace thanks to Bowen’s turn) cornering his unfaithful wife and threatening pummel his friends. At first, it seems like simple jealousy, but he’s suddenly making confounding remarks with no bearing in reality. Before you know it, every tenant in the apartment is at each other’s throats, with Mya just looking to survive the night.

When Jacob Gentry takes the reins for transmission two (“The Jealousy Monster”), the film detours and begins to transcend its familiar trappings. Shifting gears to focus on another set of ill-fated party hosts in another apartment building, the film slows down to take stock of the broken psyches left in the signal’s wake. Here, we see that its victims can appear like normal folks who have gone slightly screwy; even after committing homicide, many of them proceed as if everything’s normal because the signal has literally altered their perception of reality. Watching everyone’s minds slowly deteriorate is more horrifying than any of the literal brain-bashing—it’s profoundly unsettling in the same way Pontypool is, as it presents an inescapable, inexplicable force looking to burrow into your brain and reprogram you. In this case, it’s also morbidly humorous because the interactions between victims take on an offbeat tone—the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and it seems like the loony survivors are content to ride it out in oblivious, deadpan fashion.

Zombie films often key in on the physical horror of its affliction, but this one’s more concerned with the existential angst of losing your faculties and committing horrifying acts for the hell of it. At least traditional zombies are driven by a need for survival—the rewired horde here acts much more arbitrarily. Dan Bush brings it all home in “Escape from Terminus,” the mind-bending, time-twisting capper that places viewers in the same position as the characters. Reality and truth become distorted as the three main characters finally confront each other, and the stakes are well-grounded thanks to the other directors’ legwork. The creative trio do leave an opportunity for some sinister ambiguity on the table with the climax, but it does feature one of the more interesting resolutions to a horror film (so often, this genre just comes down to who can stab who first—this one doesn’t).

Interestingly enough, the film also provides evidence that Bruckner has had a course charted for Crystal Lake for a while, as the film opens with a slasher movie (complete with retro title card!) that eventually gets interrupted by the signal. It’s a fun sequence that I guess will be parsed by eager fans as a demo reel of sorts, but it’s also sort of a brilliant opener that sees a mindless horror film yielding to a much more heady effort. I also have to wonder if it doesn’t represent a satirical thumb in the eye of the notion that harmless violent media begets violence—instead, the violence perpetrated throughout the film is inspired by formless white noise. It’s interesting stuff to chew on and harkens back to a time when undead films often looked to provide thematic meat on its bones before thoughtfully gnawing it off. I don’t know if we can expect (or even want) Bruckner to be up to the same thing with Friday the 13th, but I’m even more excited to see what Jason does on his watch. Buy it!

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