Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Justin Welborn), but rather than hammer out the situation like most civilized people do -- on The Jerry Springer Show -- she returns home late from a night of canoodling to her suspicious husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen). As he questions her, though, Mya realizes that she has more pressing issues. You see, Lewis starts to act strange; not "I'm onto your dirty little secret" strange, but rather "I just bludgeoned my best friend to death with a baseball bat" strange. And he's not alone; the whole world -- or at least the entire city of Terminus -- seems to have gone stark raving mad.
Surprisingly few people rationalize that the mysterious, garbled "signal" that's suddenly begun transmitting through phones and TVs might have something to do with the mass hysteria -- their ignorance explained in part by the signal's hypnotic power and by the fact that it can actually turn on televisions and radios to make people listen and watch. Ben, however, figures it out and avoids "the crazy" just long enough to make his trek back to the woman he loves (Luckily, she has the sense to wear her headphones.). Along the way, Ben runs into an array of allies and enemies, crazies and not-quite-so-crazies, and of course, Lewis.
The End Product
The Signal is that rare modern horror movie that has a brain and uses it to show a level of restraint and -- dare I say -- class. It's an independent film in the best sense of the word, avoiding the sins that so many big studio horror productions commit, hiring music video directors to deliver a slick-looking product full of cheap scares and gore for gore's sake. Rather than a sterile, slick veneer, The Signal has a high-end digital video grittiness that sharpens the edge of the chaos on screen. Instead of cheap scares, it has a simmering tension built by the strength of the writing. Rather than haphazard gore, it has selective splatter appropriate to the scene.
Writer-directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry deserve the bulk of the credit for the film's quality. Their intelligent script has an indie vibe, jumping back and forth in time and breaking itself up into three "transmissions" (complete with title cards), each helmed by a different director. The characters aren't one-sided cinematic stereotypes; the heroes aren't without faults (they're having an affair, after all), and Lewis isn't some abusive monster. He and Mya have just grown apart. No explanation is necessary, just as there's no need to explain the origin of the signal. (I can envision Hollywood's take, featuring a suicide mission to mend a rift in the space-time continuum and a scene involving erotic animal crackers.)
The Signal is, at its heart, a story about relationships, but rest assured, it's no "touchy feely," Dr. Phil horror flick; there are plenty of bloody stabbings, pummelings and even a decapitation or two. That said, its focus lies more on the lives of these particular individuals and their efforts to reunite rather than on documenting the extent of a large-scale, Dawn of the Dead-type battle versus a population of madmen.
Beyond a few early moments, the movie admittedly isn't terrifying, but it creeps into your head, sort of like...a hypnotic signal of some sort? The pulsating barrage of electronic emissions actually gets to you at some point, and you just might find yourself looking away from the screen -- just in case. The directors convey the characters' mind-scrambles by occasionally showing how they perceive events, making you second-guess your own eyes. Is that severed head really speaking to me?
At times -- particularly in the second "transmission" -- The Signal is even laugh-out-loud funny (Or was a talking severed head not an indication?), a dexterity made possible by the three-headed director and his quirky indie approach. Although he's the quote-unquote villain, Lewis is the impetus for much of the humor, because his insanity lies in his belief that he's not insane -- just one intriguing concept of many introduced by this sharp, entertaining, intense film.
- Acting: B (Despite no recognizable faces, the cast manages to deliver everything from tragedy to comedy to pure, unadulterated terror.)
- Direction: A (Three heads are better than one.)
- Script: A- (Smart, funny, harrowing, romantic and touching.)
- Gore/Effects: B+ (Well done for such a modest budget. Gory without going for shock value.)
- Overall: A- (An early entry in the running for best horror film of the year.)
The Signal is directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry and is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and brief nudity.