The Signal (2007)

26 Oct

Is this the face of a vicious killer? If he wasn't gagged and duct-taped into a chair, I mean.

Another day, another twist on the “Rage Virus” theme which seems a popular choice for filmmakers who don’t want to go full zombie. In “The Signal,” three separate segments of the story are directed by three different directors and in three different styles. Things get a little messy.

Mya Denton (Anessa Ramsey) wakes late one night in the arms of her lover, Ben Capstone (Justin Welborn), to the flicker of the television and a strange noise. After switching the set off, she hurries to get home to her husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen), despite Ben’s reluctance to let her go. He tells her to leave Lewis and the two of them will leave the city of Terminus together the next day on an outbound train at Terminal 13. When Mya gets home, she finds Lewis and two of his friends attempting to watch a game on television. Instead, all they’re getting is that same strange signal. The phones are also dead; all anyone can pick up is the noise portion of the signal. Tempers flare in the Denton household as the television refuses to pick up anything other than the psychedelic pattern and noise, and the argument ends with Lewis bashing in one of his friends’ heads with a baseball bat. Mya escapes to the hallway, which she finds littered with dead bodies, and is chased into an adjoining apartment by a knife-wielding psycho. She waits out the night, and, with nothing left to stay for, remembers Ben’s offer and heads to the train station. But, with the whole world going crazy, Lewis still on the prowl, and Ben heading in the wrong direction, what was a pleasant idea yesterday is a nightmare in practice.

In theory, I like the idea of telling the story in three different acts, but in actuality it proved a bit tiresome. Each time a new “transmission” started, the plot slowed or came to a standstill while the film took 10 or 15 minutes to adjust to its new subgenre. The segments seemed to try to cram in as many genre cliches as they could to establish tone, a tactic which mostly worked but which was fairly dull, especially in the dark humor second transmission. The shifts between style felt extremely disruptive and served to eliminate any tension the film had built. Rather than providing a compelling narrative, the separate story elements instead seem self-serving; plot threads are picked up and then abandoned, characters are introduced then eliminated, and loose ties are forged simply to hold everything together. In particular, the “dark humor” portion of this film really misses its mark. It utterly fails at being funny, instead eliciting the kind of nervous smiles one expects after an off-color joke causes the teller’s sanity to be questioned. In fact, the middle segment contains the most horrific violence, the most disgusting deaths and the most disturbing imagery, all of which pair very poorly with the off-hand sex jokes and laughs-by-idiocy.

It's too bad we aren't given enough reasons to care about Mya. I suspect this movie would've been a great deal more effective if we had more to go on with her.

By being so bound to the three-act style, the filmmakers ignore some story threads that deserved further investigation. For one, there’s never any explanation given as to where the signal came from. There’s some hints that the signal is not intended to drive people crazy; it’s intimated the purpose is to cause people to focus on what makes them happy and attain that happiness, and the whole process simply backfires. That’s a fantastic twist on the Rage Virus that could have made for an interesting plot diversion. The third segment, the sci-fi tinged one, introduces the concept of individuals being able to choose to override the signal. It also suggested, again I must point out in the final third of the film, that the city of Terminus is impossible for its inhabitants to leave. Indeed, when our main characters finally make their way to the train station, there is no activity and no evidence of recent activity. I found myself really wishing the filmmakers had abandoned the whole “transmissions” concept in favor of one really strong movie coming from either the horror or the sci-fi standpoint. Either of those would’ve been a more cohesive and interesting film than the one they ended up with.

Which isn’t to say “The Signal” is an utter failure. The film has a surprising visual cohesiveness given its disjointed storytelling. This is a dark, gritty movie. Even when the color palette verges toward circus tent in the odd second act, the movie retains a definite malevolent feel thanks to the wise choice to maintain a stylistic tone. There are some genuine scares and surprises in this tale, and some absolutely terrifying bits of violence, so as a horror movie, it works fairly well. Adding to the overall creepiness is a standout performance from AJ Bowen as the relentless Lewis. This is a character with whom the audience might have some natural empathy, but Bowen’s chilling detachment eliminates any pre-existing goodwill. He manages to trick us a few times, making us believe (or hope, at least) Lewis isn’t as terrible as he seemed, then resuming his torture of various cast members. Bowen turned in a nice, creepy little performance in “The House of the Devil,” and I was pleased to see him show up here, again in a deliciously villainous role. For their parts, Anessa Ramsey and Justin Wellborn perform adequately, although I was never extremely moved by either of them. The lack of connect with the audience only becomes an issue in the absolute closing bits of the film, so overall it isn’t a huge issue. Had there been more of an emotional connection, however, the ending would have had much more impact.

“The Signal” is 100% honest about its ambition, and you have to sort of admire its vision, even if the film ultimately falls a bit short. As a new take on the Rage Virus story that keeps surfacing these days, it’s interesting, but in the pantheon of horror, it’s too uneven to make much of an impact. Two stars out of four.

The Signal“: Rated R. Starring Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matthew Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett and Chad McKnight (as Chadrian McKnight). Directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. Screenplay by David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush. Original music by Ben Lovett.

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