Opening Friday, February 22nd
A.J. Bowen as Lewis Denton
Anessa Ramsey as Mya Denton
Cheri Christian as Anna
Justin Welborn as Ben
Scott Pythress as Clark
Sahr Ngaujah as Rod
Directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry
To a generation raised on cathode rays, there is likely no apocalyptic scenario more frightening than life without television. Tout “new media” all you like, but America remains a country of couch potatoes desperate for their next fix of Housewives, lost without knowing who gets off the damned island; a country where nothing qualifies as reality unless it happens on the air. But what if some mysterious force – far more sinister than any striking writers – replaced our regularly scheduled programming? How would we cope? In “The Signal,” this is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but some bad reception.
The force in question is a pulsing static feed that unceremoniously commandeers every television, radio, and cell phone transmission, instilling a maddening paranoia in all who are exposed to it. A resulting wave of rampant violence engulfs the fictional city of Terminus as two detached lovers attempt to make their escape.
Lensed by a trio of directors, “The Signal” is an arresting, experimental tale of complete societal breakdown told on an intimate scale in three distinct segments. At the center of them all is a volatile love triangle between the young, insecure Mya (Anessa Ramsey), her tightly wound husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen), and Ben (Justin Welborn), the compassionate other-man who promises Mya a better life.
It takes little time for David Bruckner’s intense introductory chapter to acquaint us with Mya’s world, and even less for that world to start disintegrating around her. Following an adulterous tryst with Ben, Mya returns home to a suspicious and increasingly unstable Lewis, his anger seemingly fed by the weird static coming through his HDTV. As his temper and distrust of Mya escalate, Lewis unloads his anger on the two friends who’ve dropped in to hang with him. Mya escapes the apartment unscathed but finds the hallways of her complex just as threatening, suddenly awash with homicidal neighbors wielding all sorts of household weaponry. We soon learn that the streets outside fair no better, and that Mya’s only hope for safety may be a planned rendezvous with Ben — as long as Lewis doesn’t catch her first. Bruckner’s vision is stark, brutal, and furiously paced, the closest of the three segments to outright horror and the most fulfilling. Mya is not an immediately likable character, but one that’s wholly believable, and Bruckner successfully deploys a few cinematic tricks, particularly his deliberate use of music, to draw us into her plight and establish this dangerous new world.
Dan Bush shifts the story’s focus and tone with his splatsticky second act chronicling Lewis’ pursuit of Mya. The hubby’s hunt for clues sidelines him briefly at the site of a planned New Year’s Eve bash where party prep has gone a little awry and dead bodies are starting to mount. The mad scramble to hide the increasing corpse count from incoming guests forms the basis of Bushâs dark comedy, which is heavily laced with shades of “Shawn of the Dead” — though the humor here is neither as fresh nor effective. Bush does enlighten us a bit more on the nature of the signal and how different individuals react to it, but his entry takes too much time in landing its punch. We want to get back onto Mya’s trail long before the film lets us.
The concluding installment, penned and directed by Jacob Gentry (who also produced the endearingly bad slasher short glimpsed on Ben’s television at the film’s opening) suffers from the opposite problem. Here the action feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped, as if Gentry is constricted by the parameters set by the previous episodes and the limited amount of time he has left. What results is a series of taut set-pieces that play out like an early Cronenberg sci-fi/thriller as Ben battles both Lewis and his own fleeting psychosis.
Though each of these chapters, or “transmissions,” employs a different take on the material and works independently, there’s a remarkable thematic consistency between them that keeps “The Signal” strong throughout. The horror element decreases as the film goes on, but the proceedings are edgy enough that a happy ending is far from certain. Bruckner, Bush, and Gentry create a convincing sense of pandemic bedlam, despite the film’s relatively tight budgetary and narrative confines, and keep us focused on character interplay, negating any questions we may have about the origin of the signal without actually addressing them. The leads are all outstanding, especially the achingly earnest Welborn, and Bowen, who deftly balances the changing nuances of his character as he transforms from a subtle threat to a frustrated everyman, and ultimately a force of relentless jealousy and aggression.
The conceit of “The Signal,” a fast-spreading infection inciting acts of heinous violence, is certainly not unique or noteworthy (comparisons to Stephen King’s “Cell” have hounded the film since its inception). This kind of story is so pervasive in horror today that it needs only an inclusive catch phrase like the “torture porn” phenomenon to become a certifiable sub-sub-genre. But in eschewing a traditional narrative and maintaining an intimate approach, the three minds behind “The Signal” bring the end of the world home to us and make it more palpable and resonant than a lot of their peers. This is the apocalypse as we might experience it – assuming we’d turn off our TVs.