The Signal (2007)
Directed by: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry
Starring: Justin Welborn, AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey
MPAA rating: PG-13
Run Time: 99 minutes
The Signal begins with a film-within-a-film, what appears to be an excerpt from a faded, 1970s-era gorefest along the lines of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Suddenly it is interrupted at a crucial moment by “the signal,” a pulsing, infuriating blur of light and feedback. The camera pans back to reveal that the movie, now supplanted by the signal, was being aired on a television in a darkened room. It’s a compelling opening to this flawed, but intelligent horror film about violence, complicity, and the media.
The premise of The Signal is quite simple. On the night of New Year’s Eve in the city of Terminus, a strong signal of some kind is broadcast over all media, cell phones, television lines, radios, etc… Its effect is to drive mad most people who see or hear it. They begin to systematically murder anyone they perceive as undermining their own pursuit of happiness. Friends kill friends, neighbors kill neighbors, spouses kill spouses, and parents kill children.
Three segments, with three perspectives, divide the movie. The first, which is written and directed by David Bruckner, centers around Mya, a young wife who makes her way home from a tryst with her lover shortly after the signal begins to broadcast. The second and strongest segment, written and directed by Jacob Gentry, is largely from the point of view of her dangerously “signalized” husband, Lewis. And the third, written and directed by Dan Bush follows her lover, Ben, and his efforts to reach Maya before Lewis does.
The signalized are not the frothing, empty-eyed “infected” of 28 Days Later. They appear to be quite rational, and the result is that the line between those affected by the signal and those unaffected becomes blurred as paranoia increases. A.J. Bowen gives a riveting performance as Lewis, who is a pest exterminator. Tall, bearded, soft-spoken, wielding his can of spray poison to murderous effect, he is the personification of the judiciously thought-out violence of the signalized. His pursuit of the appropriately named Mya does not seem to be driven by the desire to kill her. Rather, she is a possession to be “protected,” and any person perceived as standing between Lewis and that possession will be destroyed without mercy.
Unfortunately, the character of Mya is a problem. It’s not the fault of actress Anessa Ramsey, who makes Mya appealingly vulnerable in the first segment as she shyly responds to Ben’s suggestion that they run away together. There is also a moment very early on where Ramsey reveals, through her stance as Lewis questions her, how frightened Mya already is of her husband. But she is given too little to do for the rest of the film beyond attempting to escape and she quickly becomes irritatingly self-absorbed and passive.
By the last third Mya has been reduced to a typical female movie-maguffin, a faceless figure to be threatened by Lewis and rescued by Ben. Since she is one of the three legs holding up this tripod of a film, this causes the momentum of the story to dribble away as adversaries Ben and Lewis get closer to their goal of finding Mya. It’s not enough to make the last segment dull, but it does make the audience’s interest in what happens to Ben and Mya more a matter of curiosity than heartfelt emotion.
The Signal is not for the squeamish, but the violence is doled out judiciously and interspersed with moments of mordant, truly biting comedy. With the exception of Mya, the filmmakers never allow us to lose sight of the humanity of the victims. Sahr Nguajah is the desperate Rod, whose panic contends with his fear of mistakenly killing the un-signalized. Scott Poythress is Clark, a technical geek who like Rod, is struggling to maintain some semblance of common decency. Cheri Christian is Anna, whose obvious love for the signalized husband she was forced to kill makes her anguish especially touching, and Justin Welborn is the tattooed, unshakably sane artiste, Ben.
What truly saves this movie in spite of its flaws is that there is an idea driving it connecting the viewer with the world outside of the theater. In an era where torture is spoken of as if it were a tactic upon which reasonable and ethical people could disagree, the terrifying “rationality” of the signalized as they maim and murder has a disturbing resonance. That thought-provoking connection with reality is what makes films like The Signal worthwhile. It’s what good science fiction is all about.