Around midnight in the city of Terminus, Ben (Justin Welborn)’s TV turns itself on, waking him up. Broadcasting across the airwaves is a signal that consists of pulsating and morphing images and an annoying droning sound. After he returns to bed, his lover Mya (Anessa Ramsey) tells him that she has to go home; her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) will be wondering where she is. Ben begs her to stay, telling her that they can run away together. Regretfully, she leaves. On the way to her car, she encounters a man who has been stabbed. Reluctant to help him, she is caught off guard when she, herself, is nearly attacked. As soon as she arrives at her apartment building, she notices that this wasn’t an isolated case. There’s a heightened tension in the air. Couples are fighting in the hallways, physically and verbally. Inside her apartment, she finds Lewis and his two friends. They tell her that they were trying to watch a baseball game when the signal started. Even though Mya thinks she’s safe, it doesn’t take long before an argument and then violence erupts in her own apartment, and soon she’s running for her life.
What is the signal? Why does it affect people differently? And can anyone ever get out of Terminus alive?
“The Signal” is the cinematic brainchild of writers/directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry. According to the film’s official web site it was originally conceived of as an experimental project called Exquisite Corpse where one filmmaker would begin a story and then he would hand it over to another one until it was completed. And that’s essentially what you find in this film. Bruckner, Bush and Gentry each wrote and directed one of the three sections, or “transmissions” as they are called, so even though this is one film, the audience experiences different “flavors” of horror-sci-fi.
The first part is the setup, so there’s plenty of tension. This is society imploding. The second part depicts the further erosion of society and the breakdown of its social mores but in a microcosm. Much of the “action” takes place in an apartment, where Anna (Cheri Christian) and her husband Ken (Christopher Thomas) are getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party. Before their guests arrive, though, he gets “the crazy” and he begins strangling her. She thrusts a balloon pump into his carotid. To say that this section is bloody is an understatement, although if you watch the behind-the-scenes extras, you will discover that it’s all just good old-fashioned cinematic magic. Of the three, this “transmission” contains the most comedy, black comedy, but still comedy. In the third and final part, the writer-director attempts to tie the loose ends together – sort of. The cause of the signal remains elusive, which allows the audience members to reach their own conclusions. This is also the most “spiritual” of the sections, with an over-riding theme of the “power of love” or something to that effect.
The budget for “The Signal” was apparently just $50,000, and it was shot in 13 days. You would never know this by watching the film, though. And this a testament to the sheer talent of the filmmakers. As we see in the extras, they created a believable car crash without ever crashing a car. It just took a lot of hands and a lot of ingenuity. You don’t usually have to watch a small budget indie for long, before you know it was made by amateurs. Everything seems subpar, from the look of the film to the acting. Not “The Signal.” The cinematography, the acting, the special effects … it all comes together into a truly professional looking package. This might not be surprising, however, as all worked on previous efforts. Gentry, for instance, directed the 2004 film “Last Goodbye,” which included Faye Dunaway and David Carradine in its cast. The acting, too, is noteworthy. If you are of a certain age, you might be racking your brain as to who Ramsey looks like. I’ll save you the consternation. She’s a blonde Ally Sheedy. Her emotions run the gamut from starry-eyed love to abject terror. I believed every moment. The same goes for Welborn, who reminded me of Michael Shannon in “The Bug.” In fact, that William Friedkin film and “The Signal” have a similar vibe to them. Bowen is an actor who commits to a role, even when he has to play an absolute psychotic who has no qualms about using bug spray to get answers. Finally, supporting actors Sahr Ngaujah who plays Rod and Scott Poythress who plays Clark make the experience all the more satisfying.
Although the idea behind “The Signal” isn’t all that original – Stephen King’s “The Cell,” David Cronenberg’s films, especially “Videodrome;” John Carpenter’s “They Live,” and even “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” provide variations on the theme of mass control through the airwaves – still it provides food for thought. If we think that something is real, does it make it so? Who are we? How do our identities change? These are all questions posed by religion, and many of the concepts explored in “The Signal” seem oddly Eastern, especially since the filmmakers hail from the Atlanta. But I digress.
Fans of horror will do themselves a favor in picking up “The Signal.” They will find intense moments, some gore, comedy, philosophical discussions, and even a love story. As I said, these filmmakers are ones to watch
David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry (director) / David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry (screenplay)
CAST: Anessa Ramsey … Mya Denton
Sahr Ngaujah … Rod
AJ Bowen … Lewis Denton
Matthew Stanton … Jerry
Suehyla El-Attar … Janice
Justin Welborn … Ben Capstone
Cheri Christian … Anna