October Nightmares #29: The Signal (2007)


Technology has changed the way that we look at horror. Everytime it evolves, technology provides new ways to reinvent traditional scary stories. Look at Japanese horror film Ringu (1998): a well-worn tale about an angry spirit that's not so angry that it's unwilling to take the time to shoot and cut a short movie and put it out on a VHS tape. There was also a film called One Missed Call (2003, 2008), in which the victims receive prophetic voicemail messages depicting their impending death. And my girlfriend berates me for never activating my voicemail. What I'm saying is that society has always been wary of new technology, especially fearing how it might threaten traditional values or ways of life, and good filmmakers choose to exploit this sentiment. Which is why I fully anticipate that there will soon be a film about a supernatural serial killer who murders through Snapchat. Better not make that one 3D though, no one wants to see a photo of a dick in three-dimensional glory.

The Signal (2007) is Cronenbergian expatiation on the negative impact of technology on society and the human race. It's an important topic, albeit once that's explored in The Signal in a rather heavy-handed way, but when one character comments: "[The signal] was replacing my thoughts … it’s a trick. Change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change," you can see what the directors are trying to say. Of course, to make its message more 'on point' for the masses, The Signal has to have some form of a horror story. So we have a film about people driven insane by a psychedelic signal that resembles the Windows Media Player from the XP days. Akin to the cause of the zombie uprising in Romero's films, The Signal is very coy in regards to the nature and original of its titular transmission. All that is known is that it sends people round the twist, like the theme song of a certain show based on the writings of Paul Jennings.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of The Signal is that it is a tale told from three different perspectives. Not three separate stories a lá Pulp Fiction, but rather a single narrative that switches between the perspective of a trio characters. The rationale behind this strange move is that the film was collaborated on by three different directors, all of whom directed individual segments in their unique style. I have no idea why they decided on this approach; it's like if Thomas Hardy had decided to tell The Mayor of Casterbridge through PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. As a result, the directors' approach gives The Signal a sort of anthology/vignette vibe, except in a single continuous story. Mya's (Anessa Ramsey) extramarital encounter with a man named Ben (Justin Welborn) is the film's starting point. Well, actually, The Signal begins by showcasing a faux low-grade exploitation thriller, "The Hap Hapgood Story," on Ben's TV set. Nowhere in the story are we offered an explanation for this cold opening, but the suggestion seems to be that this brutal film is actually part of the transmission, or even that this is a Videodrome-esque situation where trashy media is responsible for the cancerous violence. Fortunately, there aren't any scenes of James Woods being whipped.

Of the three segments, I'd argue that the first, Transmission 1: Crazy in Love, is the most effective. Directed by David Bruckner, Crazy in Love is a The Crazies (1973) inspired horror-thriller that depicts the city's slip into chaos as the hallucinogenic signal takes over television screens. And chaotic it certainly is, the scenes of carnage depicted in the suffocating apartment block are bloody, shaky, and fast-moving - it's like watching a washing machine filled with the National Nose-Bleeder Association's laundry. What makes this part of the film stand out, is Bruckner's break-neck approach. Instead of the usual gradual uncovering of the darkness that Zombie-apocalypse movies tend to do, Bruckner develops his short at a steady pace, offering the viewer hints of the encroaching pandemonium as Mya heads home. We see subtle signs of the destruction/violence, increased aggression in Mya's apartment block, and the strange behaviour of her friends and husband Lewis (AJ Bowen). What is coming may be obvious, but it's done so well that it's rather compelling regardless. Throughout Bruckner successfully builds up the tension, resulting in the viewer being blind-sided when Lewis inevitably snaps and bludgeons his friend to death with a baseball bat. "Wow," I gasped, "usually the black guy is the first to die."

Transmission 2: The Jealousy Monster and Transmission 3: Escape from Terminus (directed by Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush, respectively) are, like the trick-or-treat sweets at a serial killer's house, a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the 'what the fuck was that?' After Mya's escape with Rod (Sahr Ngaujah) in the first act, Lewis attempts to hunt her down and comes across Ben, who he promptly abducts. The bulk of Transmission 2 is a black comedy affair involving Anna (Cheri Christian) a ditsy housewife who is traumatized having killed her husband in self-defense, and her neighbours Clark (Scott Poythress) and Jim (Chad McKnight) who have arrived in expectation of a New Year's party. Gentry plays with gallows humour here, mostly involving Anna's attempts at avoiding the reality of her mariticide and Jim's general obliviousness of the situation. When Lewis enters the party, Gentry employs the use of slapstick and violent humour - until the scenario gets really nasty and Lewis graphically kills Anna with a toxic pesticide. I'm reminded of The League of Gentlemen, and not just because Anna's dead husband looks somewhat like Steve Pemberton.

Bush's section (hehe) isn't worth disecting. Apart from one rather intense scene involving a "here's Johnny" moment in a storage shed - also Rod's reanimated, decapitated head - Transmission 3 circles the drain like ejaculate following super happy fun time in the shower. It'd be unfair to criticize Bush entirely, as he does an admirable job, it's just that he is handed the unenviable task of concluding a story that primarily constitutes a series of violent instances. Perhaps his only saving grace is that Bowen is a large ham able to carry a scene, and the latter half of the movie focuses on Lewis. Even his big moment is wasted though - he punches a screen depicting the signal, is electrocuted, and that's bye bye Lewis.
Overall, however, The Signal is a cleverly crafted technological horror film. I wouldn't say that it stacks up to its far superior predecessors, such as Halloween III or Videodrome, however. It has the same problem that a lot of horror movies have - sagging in the middle like a forty-year old man who has bent over to pick up a penny. But from a strong premise The Signal spins a tale technology gone disastrously wrong, and brings Romero's The Crazies era 'zombies' back to the limelight. The ultimate 'villain' is rather excellent too, despite simply being an overly colourful pattern and white noise, it's like something from The Outer Limits. I find the idea of a mysterious signal causing bloodshed and insanity strangely appealing: living where I live, dodgy signals are often the cause of rage-induced violence - such as every time I try to send a bloody text message.