Being Film #5 in Hail Horror 2008
Do films like THE SIGNAL count as being part of the "Zombie Craze" infecting (heh!) studios and publishing houses over the past few years? A lot of people thought we were stretching it by allowing 28 DAYS LATER and its sequel through the door (I loved both, by the way), but here we have something else, a strange cousin to Stephen King's Cell, which was about a signal emitted from everyone's cell phone that turned all who hear it into into blood-crazed lunatics. King played the novel as a laugh, albeit a cautionary one; THE SIGNAL, an experiment in collaborative film making by three writer/directors, takes a similar road with similar results.
THE SIGNAL is divided into three acts or transmissions, all centering around a mysterious signal emitted via electronic devices. Phones, radios, television... all carry a virus that turns the listener or watcher into a cold, rational killer. That rationality's the hook that moves the film beyond a 28 DAYS LATER clone and into a new direction - the "zombies" are perfectly aware of what they're doing - they just happen to think it's exactly the right thing to do.
The intro is a take on the schlock 70's-80's grindhouse movie - bold, bright credits and a movie-within-the-movie of two bloodied women attempting to flee a killer in the woods. But spliced into the sequence is the titular signal, drawing us into the movie proper, where Mya ( Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (Justin Welborn) are cuddling after a post-coital affair. Having to return to a husband she no longer loves, he begs her to run away with him: meet him tomorrow night, New Year's Eve, at Terminal 13 at the Terminus (apropos city name) train station. He shyly gives her a mix CD, and she leaves. They both notice the phones don't work, and the television seems to be on the fritz, but thinking of it , they part.
Atmosphere is everything in a film like this, and immediately THE SIGNAL does a fantastic job of layering the foreboding and tension. People wander aimlessly in the halls of Mya's apartment building and the violence, when it finally erupts, does so after a chilling build-up where we being to suspect that, had Mya's husband Lewis not been triggered by the signal, he still would potentially be an insane bastard. Transmission 1 involves Mya's escape from the apartment building, and her eventual decision to try and meet up with Ben at the train station. The directing team of David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry make every cent of their $50,000 budget work, keeping the tension and fear at fever pitch thanks to great performances from a relatively unknown cast, decisive editing that doesn't bow to the jittery hand-held used so often as a crutch in smaller films and, most surprising, brief substitutions of logic for the sublime. Venturing out of a neighbor's apartment she's hidden out in, Mya puts on her headphones, plays Ben's mix and determinedly walks down a corridor strewn with dead bodies and blood. It's frankly ridiculous, but the way Ramsey plays the scene and the way the music evokes the mood she's trying to savor, that of her night with Ben, works like a charm.
Transmission 2, ostensibly still following the story, takes a HUGE left-hand turn, becoming a black comedy, with the focus on "comedy." And it's actually damn funny. Mya's husband Lewis takes center stage as he attempts to track her down. He crosses paths with a perky woman trying to throw a New Year's party along with her landlord. Before long bodies begin to pile up, and as things become more and more unhinged I found myself laughing right along. This is both THE SIGNAL'S triumph and its burden. I would love to have seen a movie comprised of the first and third act. I would loved to have seen a movie comprised of just the second act. But with the abrupt shift in gears THE SIGNAL has to really fight to get the steam it built back in time for Transmission 3.
Which it manages to do. Mya and Ben's story resumes, situations come to a head, we learn that the signal may or may not be able to be controlled and even channeled, and things end on a happy note. Or maybe not. Because THE SIGNAL uses flashbacks and flash-forwards like Lost on steroids. The operative word is on "flash" - the brief flashes of time sometimes are readily apparent as past or future, and sometimes things a a little harder to piece out. And by firmly focusing on a very small group of people and how they handle their situation rather than throw meaningless theories as to the nature of the signal (It's there, but more of a passing thought than a significant aspect of the movie), THE SIGNAL get a lot more right than wrong.
You can watch THE SIGNAL just for the solid horror story and get a lot out of it. Or, you can choose to read into things a bit more (is the signal sending the violent impulses or is it just amplifying our natural tendencies?), but either way THE SIGNAL is a shining example of what horror can do without catering to a the lowest denominator or kow-towing to the ratings board. If you're into horror or apocalyptic movies, definitely check it out.