Reviewed by: Zombie Boy
David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush
What's it about
A desperate love story told against the backdrop of the end of the world, as a mysterious audio/visual signal that plays through every television, radio, and phone inspires people to violence and murder.
Is it good movie?
All across the vaguely futuristic city (state? country? planet?) of Terminus, televisions turn themselves on and begin blasting a fractal nightmare signal of colors and sounds ostensibly designed to cause regular people to become homicidal maniacs, which it succeeds at with flying colors. Turn the radio on for news? The signal. Phone for help? The signal. Trust anybody? The signal. The insidiousness of the signal is that it does not turn people into zombies or 28 Days Later rage monsters. It simply shifts behavioral patterns and retracks thought processes so that brutal violence and remorseless homicide seem like perfectly acceptable answers to life’s every day problems.
In the midst of the madness, Mya tries to make her way to Terminal 13, where she was set to meet her lover, Ben, and leave the city and her husband, Lewis, for good, before the madness started. Unbeknownst to her, she barely misses Ben as he goes to find her, where he has a fateful encounter with Lewis, who has been irretrievably “signalized”. From there the story fractures into many shards of glass, lying on the pavement and winking back story at us, in a semi-Tarantino-esque way, but without the self-referencing. Some new characters are introduced, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who has been signalized and who is merely cracking under stress.
I suppose at this point I should tell you the main novelty of the film, in that it is told in three acts, or Transmissions. That is because the film was written, directed, and shot by three different men. Transmission 1: Crazy in Love, was done by David Bruckner, and is a hold-your-breath throwback to seedy 70’s horror. He has the job of introducing Mya and Ben’s true love, the driving force behind all the events of the film, as well as getting us into the horror of the signalized masses. He thrusts these irons into the fire masterfully and, ultimately, straight up our asses. He creates a slow, ominous dread which totally freaked me out. Jacob Gentry handles Transmission 2: The Jealousy Monster, and radically shifts the tone to horror/comedy. Lewis stumbles upon Clark and Anna, and Anna’s recently murdered (by her) husband Ken. Lewis can’t seem to tell the difference between Anna and Mya. The comedic aspect is an excellent vehicle to show us the delusional mindset of a signalized person, as well as that of a non-signalized person. It becomes up to us to tell the difference. By the end of Transmission 2, the action becomes so horrific that even though the tone is still comedic, you won’t be laughing anymore. Not by a long shot.
Finally, there is Transmission 3: Escape from Terminus, helmed by Dan Bush. He wraps things up very nicely, in an esoteric, transcendental way, almost a dream-like state. Ben has found a way to essentially talk himself out of the signal, and collects Clark and heads to Terminal 13 to collect Mya and have the inevitable confrontation with Lewis. Oddly enough, the transmission that connects the most emotionally is also the most cinematically graphic (fully employing the Troma-style melon full of meat as a crushed head). While the experimental nature of the construction of the film is novel and interesting, it is the acting that sells it, and the third piece of the film is where it really shines through. Those folks were really put through the wringer, especially when you consider that the film was shot for a mere $50,000 on an insane schedule of only 13 days. But they threw themselves into it, as did the small crew, everyone giving 110%, and the end result is a gripping horror film where you will actually care what happens to the characters, and maybe see a story told in a different way, which is worth its weight in gold, in my opinion.
Video / Audio
Video: The film is shown in 1.78:1 Widescreen, and looks wonderful. It was shot Hi-Def, and the photography is a successful nod to its grindhouse predecessors. If you took out the cell phones and flat-screen TVs, you could be watching one of those movies that Rob Zombie has been jerking off to in all of his films. Especially the interstitial graphics between Transmissions. The brilliance is, even a shite transfer would only add to that effect!
Audio: English, 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital with optional Spanish subtitles. The better your sound system, the more the signal will freak you out.
Deleted Scenes: Being such a rushed shoot, there aren’t many deleted scenes. There are two attempts at the “boy on a bike” scene, neither of which would have worked well in the movie, in my opinion. The only other scene is actually an extended scene, involving a baseball bat. It was trimmed for pace.
Inside Terminus: The Making of The Signal: This is an excellent 15-minute behind the scene piece, and includes interviews with all of the principals, including producer Andrew Motlagh, as well as some very interesting insights into how the special effects were done. It is heartening to see how all of these people came together not for money or fame, but to make a good film in an interesting way.
Signal Breakdown: This is a 4-minute piece that easily could have been rolled over into the behind the scenes featurette. It basically contains some interviews and insights behind the characters’ actions.
Transmissions: These are three short “webisodes” that the three guys got together and did after the film wrapped. They basically briefly tell some other stories that happen in Terminus during the signal that didn’t intersect with the main characters. They’re too brief, but just as electrifying as the movie itself. Especially when a mother goes into the backseat of the car and gets “the kids settled down”, and what the hell is in the box that guy is trying to return at the electronics store, and why is it dripping red stuff?
Director’s Commentary: Keeping up with the experimental nature of the film, only the two directors whose work was not on screen were allowed to comment. The other had to leave the room. All three were present for the opening scene and the end credits. It is a casual and informative commentary, full of great trivia bits and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
The Hap Hapgood Story: This is the 10-minutes short film that Jacob Gentry shot for the 48-Hour Film Festival a few years ago, which involves Scott Poythress (who plays Clark in The Signal) as the titular character, menacing three innocent women. It is brutal and senseless, as most violence is in the world. A truncated version of this short serves as the opening two minutes of The Signal.
Theatrical trailer: Yeah. Well. There you go. A pretty good ‘un, too.
The Signal: Yup, those evil bastards actually put the signal on the DVD. You can watch it in all its glory. Being the OCD guy that I am, I did just that. And I didn’t kill anyone. Well, no one you know.
On a final note, the packaging is rad, too. From the badass holographic sleeve to the way the background image on the scene selection screen fuzzes out as you advance through the selections, a lot of attention was paid in delivering the film to your home with a little panache.
The Signal is an impressive movie, both in terms of execution, budget, and schedule. But over and above that, it is damn entertaining. The cinematography has a warm, nostalgic feel, while the events on screen range from blackly comic to emotionally riveting to out and out terrifying. The utilitarian method of filming and the attention to realism of the characters gives the whole experience a verisimilitude that borders on the uncomfortable. Just as any horror movie should be. Safe is for romantic comedies.