The Signal (co-written/-directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) actually made a Sundance premiere in early 2007, but despite a lot of buzz on the festival circuit that year (I saw it during the 43rd Chicago International Film Festival), the film ended up having only a brief and virtually invisible theatrical release in 2008. Box Office Mojo mentions an opening weekend of 160 screens, with a meager average gross of $905 per screen. I’m guessing poor and sparse marketing helped contribute to the film’s general obscurity. Its trailer and teaser come off as little more than a wannabe-28 Days Later-style ripoff of Stephen King’s technology-based apocalyptic novel, Cell (Eli Roth’s film adaptation has been highly anticipated among King/Roth fans since ’06).
Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate that the film has thus far remained relatively unseen. It’s a fun, brutal, smartly realized piece of indie sci-fi/horror, and one of the few thoroughly exciting pieces of genre filmmaking I saw all year. Made for an estimated $50,000 to boot, I think the studios could learn a great deal from the three talented writer/directors responsible for this one.
Set in the fictional city of Terminus on New Year’s Eve, the plot depicts the unpredictably murderous mass hysteria as caused by an anonymous, psychedelic telecommunications signal broadcast through televisions, phones and radio. With elements of Ringu, Videodrome, The Crazies and countless other zombie/apocalyptic/doomsday films, its premise wouldn’t strike you as a very original one. But the responsible parties are clearly schooled in + fond of the genre conventions, and are quite inventive in choosing how to play off of (or subvert) them.
Ben (Justin Welborn) watches in "The Signal."
"Videodrome," 1983 / Canada
The film is split into three parts (called “Transmissions”), each written and directed by a different filmmaker. Somewhere between an Anthology and Composite film, the structure helps convincingly imply the scale of a large urban-dwelling crisis (minus expensive + elaborate shots of citywide carnage), as three specific scenarios occur in different parts of the city. Four main characters pursue one another throughout much of the film, while the middle chapter introduces a darkly satirical tonal shift + comic relief, in Jacob Gentry’s Transmission 2.o: “The Jealousy Monster.” A well realized balance of comedy and terror doesn’t always feel properly suited for horror (I didn’t think it worked so well in last year’s Teeth). Here however Gentry plays into the viewers’ vicarious desire to see something bad finally happen to that sickeningly happy/repulsively dorky couple whom we all know.
The trio may lose some of their audience at this point, but I think many early protesters might form an eventual appreciation of the segment upon repeat viewings, proving whether or not the chicanery of the film’s namesake can indeed keep the audience hypnotized. After re-watching the film, I became more aware of the subtle and effective intricacy of the overall arc (including):
- Transmission 1.o: “Crazy in Love” – Rising paranoia/dread + human conflict/love/infidelity + shock/horror/anarchy
- Transmission 2.0: “The Jealousy Monster” – Satire/humor + introspective, hallucinatory depictions of ‘signal’ affects (in lieu of a clear, trustworthy explanation) + extreme violence/gore
- Transmission 3.0: “Escape from Terminus” – Physical/mental exodus + implied spiritual self-awareness/understanding + confrontation/ambiguous resolve
Sci-fi/Horror junkies should also get a kick out of some iconic horror imagery, featured throughout the film, referencing cult favorites like The Shining, Re-Animator and They Live.
Above: "The Signal" Below: "They Live," 1988 / USA
The Signal is a strong, though overlooked, addition to (what I feel is only) a small number of good recent American horror films out there. At least it’s up for a Film Independent Spirit Award this year.
Related Films | Previously Overlooked in Sci-fi/Horror:
- The Descent – 2005|2006(US) Dir. Neil Marshall / United Kingdom
- Sunshine – 2007 Dir. Danny Boyle / USA|UK