Signal, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/08/07 00:00:39

"An original horror movie? That is shocking!"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "The Signal" is not a zombie movie, or a slasher movie, although it uses elements of both to create something new and legitimately frightening. For a horror movie, that's genuinely exciting - I can't remember the last one I've seen that resisted easy categorization.

There is this transmission, you see, and it's blanketing all frequencies. Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is woken by it when her lover Ben's television turns on my itself, but she and Ben (Justin Welborn) turn it off and hang up their phones quickly. When she gets back to her apartment building, everyone seems to be on edge. Her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) and his friends are trying to get reception from their television, and Lewis is asking uncomfortable questions. Soon someone is dead, everyone seems to be ready to snap, and Mya is running. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the neighborhood, Anna (Cheri Christian) is worried about her New Year's Party not going right with her husband Ken (Christopher Thomas) being dead and their landlord Clark (Scott Poythress) at the door, and Ben is coming into town to get Mya.

The mysterious signal isn't turning people into unthinking, inarticulate zombies, nor is it downloading some sort of alien presence into its victims' heads. It's doing something more insidious, either turning off the thing in their minds that makes them feel murder is wrong. One character describes it as a message that other people don't have to stand between themselves and happiness. Indeed, at times the characters won't let objective reality stand between themselves and what they want, as hallucinations appear and perceptions of who someone is talking to shift. People are who they were, just without any compunctions about killing, and it's sometimes very difficult to tell who is actually insane and who is just doing what is necessary to survive in a world where so much of the rest of the population has gone crazy.

The film is divided into three segments, and although the freezing of frames and chapter titles initially seem like they're just a stylistic choice, each section of the movie actually has a different writer and director. The movie flows between sections remarkably smoothly, as if it was the work of one man, though there are shifts in tone once you're aware of the device. David Bruckner's opening section, for instance, is the initial outbreak, with vicious kills coming from every direction, though there's more than just splatter going on. It's where we see just how insidious the effects of the signal are, as Mya and Rod (Sahr Nguajah) try to figure out how it's possible to trust each other. Jacob Gentry's second act shifts to what is almost a black comedy of manners, with Anna, Clark, and Lewis holed up in an apartment, mostly acting civil to each other, seemingly normal despite the bodies around them, but a siege mentality creeping in. Dan Bush's final act follows Ben as he tries to shake off the signal's effect to reunite with Mya, asking the question of whether it's possible to restore civilization and sanity through sheer interior force of will, because it's not going to come from the outside.

Heady stuff, although the movie never gets heavy. In fact, it's quite funny at some points, especially in that second segment. What Gentry and the other filmmakers do is let the comedy arise naturally from the horrific events rather than shoehorning one-liners or corny slapstick in. There's a lot of "wrong" laughs to be had, and other moments where the audience finds itself laughing in part because horror fans are trained to laugh at certain points - the way Rod casually describes violent acts in the first part, for instance - but the realization that this situation is a real problem sinks in. Brucker and Bush, especially, are good at setting up situations that are tense on two levels - there's someone trying to survive, but there's also someone trying not to be a monster. Initially, I grumbled that it seemed to be a little easy for Ben to shake off the signal's program, but I wonder if that's part of what Bush and company are getting at - it's actually not a difficult choice to act civilized, but that people by and large won't make it unless they have to.

Of course, if you're not interested in the high-minded stuff, there's plenty of good blood and guts. The cast does a good job handling the horror stuff, especially AJ Bowen, who conveys a calm-voiced menace as Lewis: There's something unpleasant about him when we first meet him, but he seems to almost fade into the background as more formidable-looking people turn violent around him, though he winds up delivering us reminders that he started out kind of nasty. Anessa Ramsey disappears for a chunk of the movie, but is great at convincing us she's under assault psychologically as well as physically. And Sahr Nguajah deserves special notice for the way he portrays Rod's disintegrating sanity.

"The Signal" is likely 2007's best horror movie (especially in the no-budget category). It's got all the mayhem and black comedy that the audience has come to expect, executed well, but it's not just going through the motions. This one's actually somewhat thoughtful rather than just content to push buttons, and that makes it actually SCARY.

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