On New Year’s Eve, every television, radio and cellular phone in the city of Terminus begins broadcasting a strange transmission made up of unsettling sounds, shifting colors and vague images. It soon becomes evident that “the signal” drives those who are exposed to it insane…homicidally insane. As Terminus descends into madness and chaos, a young woman named Mya seeks to escape the city; but unknown to her, she’s pursued by two men: her (infected) husband Lewis and her (uninfected) lover Ben. Both men seek to reach Mya before the other, and they’re willing to commit some extreme acts to achieve their goals…
A lot of times I try to go into a movie not knowing much about it save for what I can glean from a trailer or Netflix synopsis. All I knew about The Signal was that it looked like a “zombielike” movie (i.e. a film which uses the grammar of a zombie movie, in which characters are driven by some contagious influence to behave like zombies, but they’re not actually undead–28 Days Later is probably the best example of the zombielike trope). It turns out that only does The Signal not feature anything that’s even remotely a zombie, I was also surprised to discover that it’s actually an anthology film–although it’s probably the goddamnedest anthology film I’ve ever seen.
It’s broken up into three segments, or “transmissions,” each one written and directed by one of the film’s three credited filmmakers. “Transmission I: Crazy In Love,” by David Bruckner (V/H/S), focuses on Mya as she encounters the initial effects of the “outbreak” and begins her journey to escape the city. “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster,” by Jacob Gentry (Last Goodbye), focuses on a young woman named Anna as she waits, apparently oblivious to the madness that has overtaken Terminus, with her neighbor Clark for guests to arrive at her New Year’s Eve party–a party at which Lewis makes an appearance. “Transmission III: Escape From Terminus,” by Dan Bush (Fightfuckpray) wraps up the story as the characters confront each other at the Terminus train station.
So as you can see, the segments tell one continuous story, but each has a radically different style and feel. Transmission I is a fairly straightforward splatter/”psychosis plauge” story, Transmission II is a black comedy that keeps getting blacker and funnier and Transmission III is an unholy cross between psych thriller and love story. I found out later that the film itself was apparently inspired by the old parlor game Exquisite Corpse–go figure.
This probably sounds like a recipe for deep-fried clusterfuck, but it in fact holds together a lot better than a synopsis might suggest. (I didn’t even realize how it was made until the closing credits.) While each of the three directors (particularly Gentry) has his own distinct style there’s enough visual continuity to create the illusion of a unified vision, and the script is structured to allow strong character development without too much in the way of personality glitches between segments. The tone shifts between segments are so gradual that I wasn’t really consciously aware of them while I was watching. The end product feels more like a series of episodes of a heavily serialized television show (such as Lost) rather than three separate shorts, so it’s hard to pick favorites.
I was extremely impressed by the script’s handling of the psychosis. It would have been very easy to portray the infected as mindless monsters, but The Signal goes for a bit of nuance. The infected are certainly aware of what they’re doing, retain a certain degree of lucidity and certainly may seem to be perfectly rational. And it’s not like the infected are even particularly easy to spot–early on in the film, Mya is nearly killed by an infected woman who attempts to hug her to death. (This is a lot creepier and a lot less ridiculous than it sounds.) This choice pays off handsome dividends throughout the film, particularly throughout Transmission III and at the story’s devastating climax.
The strong script and characterization gives the main cast–Anessa Ramsey as Mya, AJ Bowen (The House Of The Devil) as Lewis, Justin Welborn as Ben and Scott Poythress as Clark–plenty of chances to shine; Bowen fairs particularly well here, granting Lewis a certain measure of relatability without sacrificing psychosis. Cheri Christian also does a fantastic job as Anna, cutting straight to the heart of the character’s tragedy. Many of the minor players are also memorable, particularly Chad McKnight as Jim, one of Anna’s friends; he gets the best line of the entire film (“I’m going to grab a slut and pee in her butt”).
It’s easy, at first glance, to write The Signal off as something you’ve probably seen a thousand times before and will see a thousand times again. But that’s a mistake: hiding behind the synopsis is a violently original work that deserves to become a genre classic.
My rating: 9 of 10.
103 minutes. Directed by David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry & Dan Bush. Starring AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Justin Wellborn, Scott Poythress, Sahr Cheri Christian, Chad McKnight.