Dirs/Writers: David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush. 99 minutes. U.S. 2006.
A low-budget horror picture filmed in high-definition video to look ultra-realistic, The Signal has mind-numbingly brutal gore and violence that could catch on with extremist horror buffs because of its unusual structure and fast-moving nature. The picture appeared at Sundance Film Festival's edgy Park City at Midnight programme because the gimmicky premise - an unexplained signal on television and in phone lines turns people paranoid and homicidal - has a veneer of Stephen King-like sci-fi hipness. Really, it's just an excuse for the umpteenth Night Of The Living Dead variation, but there always seems to be room for one more of those in the market.
High-def-friendly Magnolia Pictures purchased the film so it will get a US release, but this lacks the intelligence, imagination and style to be another international arthouse-horror hit on the order of 28 Days, Shaun of the Dead or Blair Witch Project. But it's original enough to do far better than last year's Night of the Living Dead 3D ($271,000 domestic). Its creepy grunginess will especially work in its favor at midnight fests and on DVD.
The story is divided into separate 'transmissions,' each from a different member of the three-person Atlanta-based team of David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush and each with a different point-of-view. The first, by far the scariest and most engrossing, begins with footage of an old, gruesome slasher flick on a TV that suddenly goes static.
A man (Justin Welborn) wakes up to turn it off, not understanding how it switched on so late at night, and goes back to the woman (Anessa Ramsey) he was sleeping with. She realises she must go home to her husband, although she can't get a cell-phone dial tone to call him.
In the parking garage, she's surprised by a man who has been stabbed by a stranger and pleads for help. Then at her dismally garish apartment building, mayhem invades the hallways as innocent residents are attacked. In her own unit, her suspicious husband Lewis (A. J. Bowen), a jealous pest-control sprayer, clubs one of his friends to death.
Next the film shifts to black comedy where a semi-catatonic woman (Cheri Christian) who has just killed her husband awaits guests at a New Year's Eve party with her confused, well-meaning landlord (Scott Poythress). Lewis, with his pesticide spray, intrudes. In a way, this is like a Saturday Night Live skit punctuated by graphic gore and sadism. A severed head in a vise even talks. The final act tries to regain the first's tension but it's been lost.
The director/writers apparently wanted The Signal to send a signal to Hollywood that they know how to push the envelope with violence and can play with structure in a Tarantinoesque way. But the tonal shifts between 'transmissions' betray a tin ear for what serves the story best. Also, after the while the basic modus operandi of introducing and then killing off characters in a domino-effect manner grows wearisome.
The relatively unknown actors all are quite good, and Poythress has an eccentrically flustered manner reminiscent of comic actor Tom Poston. Christian looks like Gilda Radner. The film makes fantastic ironic use of Lou Reed's Perfect Day, which is on a mix-tape given to Ramsey by Welborn and which becomes her symbol of hope as the bloodletting grows. Makeup and special effects, including that severed head, are also thoroughly professional.
Linda Burns (consulting producer)