Review first published by EyeforFilm.
Like so many good things, The Signal comes in threes. Three writer/directors, three linked episodes (or ‘transmissions’), three radically different filmmaking styles and moods – all unified by the three-way psychodynamics of a love triangle that just happens, crucially, to unfold in the middle of a mind-melting future apocalypse.
Three bound women are seen trying hopelessly to escape the murderous clutches of a crazed male tormentor – yet if this opening sequence seems to come straight out of the slasher/’torture porn’ mould, then the overdramatic score and rough glitches in the footage combine to suggest a reason for the sequence’s generic overfamiliarity.
This is a piece of metacinema, a horror film being broadcast as a late-night movie within the story world of The Signal, also serving as a distorted programme of what is to come, in what will be a reflexive dramatisation of the psychology of horror. The prologue was in fact cut up and rescored from an earlier short film, The Hap Hapgood Story, originally made by Jacob Gentry for the 48 Hour Film TV Project – and it is the only suggestion during the otherwise tender character interactions in the opening 15 minutes of The Signal that there are terrible human outrages in store.
“That was strange,” says photographer Ben (Justin Welborn), who has just been woken by a barrage of chaotic colour and noise coming from his television, “the TV turned itself on”. Mya (Anessa Ramsey) has woken too, unsure whether to stay with her overpossessive husband Lewis (AJ Bowen), or get on the train that very night (New Year’s Eve) with lover Ben, leaving Lewis and the city of Terminus forever behind for a future of new possibilities and hopes.
That strange signal, however, is coming not just from the television, but from radios, phones, and every other connected device – and as Mya makes her way back home to Lewis, perhaps for the last time, she bears witness to the signal’s unsettling effects on its human receivers. Deranged servants to their own primal impulses, victims of the signal suffer hallucinations that play out their anxieties and desires, even as they remain utterly, forcefully convinced of their own sanity.
David Bruckner’s Transmission One: Crazy In Love is all about the carefully managed escalation of tension, as the apartment block neighbours’ petty grievances and Lewis’ jealousy slowly bubble up and erupt into something altogether more unhinged, and psychological realism discreetly gives way to a hysterical and paranoid brand of psychosis. Mya decides, finally, to dump her husband – maybe it is the baseball bat he swings into a friend’s skull that clinches it for her – and escapes into the deadly pandemonium around her, no more certain than we are of who she can trust in a city where, overnight, everyone appears to have “got the crazy”.
If Transmission One slowly raises the film’s horror to a pitch of explosive intensity, then Jacob Gentry’s Transmission Two: The Jealousy Monster disorients the viewer even further with a violent swing in mood. This time showing the insanity that has afflicted Terminus from the deluded perspective of the insane themselves, the film’s middle section plays itself out as high farce – with a bodycount.
Anna (Cheri Christian) has killed her husband before their New Year’s Party can even begin, but as more guests, invited or otherwise, pile in one by one, including geeky landlord Clark (Scott Poythrees), priapic Jim Parsons (Chadrian McKnight) and an increasingly aggressive Lewis, social awkwardness and manic mayhem ensue. It is as though the cringy bourgeois satire of Mike Leigh has collided head-on with an acid-fuelled massacre, adding up to some very uneasy humour, executed (so to speak) with perfect timing by the cast. Rarely have the faultlines between comedy and horror been exposed with greater precision.
In Transmission Three: Escape From Terminus, director Dan Bush takes a more metaphysical approach to his material, as Ben and Clark race to find Mya before the homicidal Lewis can reach her, while struggling to cope with their own exposure to the signal’s mind-altering effects. Here identities, dreams, madness, fantasy and film itself all become desperately confused – and yet, from the very depths of all the blank-eyed stares and fried braincells there still emerges a fluid flicker of humanity, whether as an elegy for what has been lost, or a sign of new hope. The last thing you expect from a film as frenetic and frenzied as this is an ending that is genuinely moving, but that is exactly what Bush manages to pull off, with a single, disarming tear before cutting to the credits.
The Signal as a whole may be concerned with behaviour at its most impulsive and mercurial, and may match the unpredictability of its subject matter to the instability of its own generic forms, so the viewer is left feeling as mentally pummeled as the characters. But nonetheless, its directors, working on a tiny budget that never seems so, always keep their most outlandish psychotronics rooted in the human, so that the end of life as we know it remains compellingly intimate.
An audience favourite at Sundance, The Signal mashes up the very best elements of The Crazies (1973), Videodrome (1983), Pulse (2001), 28 Days Later… (2002) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) to create a tripartite vision of postmodern alienation, societal breakdown and mental disintegration. Funny, terrifying and haunting all at once, it is horror at its very finest – as arresting as a baseball bat to the head, while still cutting to the heart – and like all great horror, no matter how expertly it handles its genre thrills, it still ends up being far more than the sum of these.
Like the mysterious transmission to which its title refers, The Signal gets right into your brain, stimulating your responses, altering your mood, and manipulating your desires, fears and hopes – and so it proves to be a bludgeoning interrogation of the impact that the video image, and electronic communications more generally, can have on humanity’s fragile psyche.
We are all, you see, inmates of Terminus, caught in a solitary confinement of our own making and controlled by the trappings of our mediated age. This voluntary enslavement to our own technology is a prison-house of the head, a “mass psychosis” (as Clark puts it) from which The Signal asks if there is ever any real escape short of simply switching off – which is harder than it sounds with a film as mesmerising, astonishing and irresistible as this. Also, being something of a headtrip, The Signal is best watched more than once (perhaps three is the ideal number of times), for what one character terms “a radical reassessment of all the facts.” Just hope you can talk yourself down afterwards.
© Anton Bitel