The dramatis personae roster for a soon-to-open, three-author film called The Signal lists a multitude of roles identified only as “random bodies,” “struggling people,” “deranged people” and so forth. If the casting, as such, suggests chaos, then such must be precisely the intent. From a premise of frenzied malevolence, writer-directors David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush have crafted a smart and orderly, if cryptic, chiller that owes many debts of influence but also brings some welcome new twists to an old and over-familiar formula.
The menace appears to stem from the electronic gizmos that have dominated civilization since the middle of the last century – television as a murderous influence, compounded by telephones and computers and anything else capable of transmitting a disruptive signal. The Bruckner/Gentry/Bush screenplay might trace its ancestry as far back as a 1935 movie called Murder by Television (back when TV, still a dozen years away from commercial acceptance, was popularly regarded as a science-fictional concept), in which a high-tech breakthrough yields “the interstellar frequency that is the death ray.”
The Signal is, of course, creepier and hipper by far than the bland and stodgy Murder by Television. The new film imagines a force that transforms ordinary working-class souls into maniacs – borrowing extensively from hither and yon, although co-director Gentry will hasten to point out that “our killers are not mindless zombies.”
Point/counter-point. The prevailing influences, nonetheless, must include George A. Romero’s Living Dead series (1968 et seq., with the new chapter Diary of the Dead recently opened) and, particularly, Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies. There is a nod to the Japanese Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse, from 2001), with its tale of Internet-borne mayhem. One might be reminded of Lamberto Bava’s Dèmoni (Italy; 1985), about a movie that affects its audience adversely; or Stephen King’s 2006 novel Cell, envisioning the ubiquitous cell-phone as an infernal device.
The Signal, its commercial prospects bolstered by favorable responses at the Sundance and South by Southwest festivals, is poised for a February 22 opening that may presume too great a general appeal for so quirky a low-budget picture. Excesses aside, the film also packs a wealth of ironic humor and a belief in the persistence of tenderness amidst ghastly circumstances.
Bruckner, Gentry and Bush, as the respective directors of three distinct acts, achieve a unified narrative tone that allows little in the way of distinctive flourishes. Other team-directing efforts, such as Quentin Tarantino’s guest-shot on a portion of 2005’s Sin City, usually display sharper distinctions of style. Gentry’s midsection of The Signal applies a keener edge of gallows humor to its tale of a party ruined by an outbreak of jealousy and homicidal mania, but overall the directing style is homogenous.
Which is not to say homogenized – far from it. The setting is a slum-town enclave, where people dwell in tenement squalor but seem nonetheless in possession of expensive home-entertainment devices. The film opens with what appears to be a conventional 1980s-style horror film, which turns out to be a movie-within-the-movie, on a TV screen. The picture breaks into static, and the camera draws back to reveal leading characters Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey) in an adulterous rendezvous. Ben urges Mya to leave this grimy town with him, but she insists upon returning home.
Mya finds plenty of static at home, too, from both the TV set and her possessive husband, Lewis (A.J. Bowen). The mysterious, quivering TV signal appears to send Lewis on a killing spree, which Mya escapes by dodging their similarly homicidal slum-dweller neighbors and ducking into a neighboring apartment.
The filmmakers dart back-and-forth in time to relate portions of the story from differing viewpoints, but a headlong momentum prevails. The intrinsic violence is tempered throughout by an infusion of absurd comedy, which figures in the secondary tale of another wife (Cheri Christian) who cannot come to terms with having her New Year’s party plans derailed by the outbreak. A bewildered landlord (Scott Poythress) struggles to keep matters, and his own impulses, under control.
The little-known players lose themselves thoroughly in the roles, with a savvy combination of theatrical and naturalistic mannerisms. A.J. Bowen is particularly effective as the wronged husband, radiating sadness while growing ever more the menace. Justin Welborn conveys a sane determination to outlast the crisis, and Scott Poythress leaves a lasting impression as the bewildered innocent who figures out an awkward way to block the mind-altering signal.
The eventual escape of Mya and Ben seems a foregone conclusion – but don’t let’s presume too much. The telling blurs the line increasingly between perception and reality, and the film ends on as enigmatic and troubling a note as it had begun. The storytellers hint, here and there, at an underlying cause, but they wisely wind up with a cue from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous critique of Mr. Shakespeare: “The motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.”
In other words: Sometimes, the inexplicability of evil can be more fascinating than any pat over-explanation.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found atwww.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.